The Sco2rlet Letter

[F]or there was exactly the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of the foot; how it came thither, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. […] [I]t came into my thought one day, that all this be a meer chimera of my own; and that this foot might be the print of my own foot, when I came on shore from my boat: […][I] began to perswade myself it was all a delusion; that it was nothing else but my own foot;

— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. The mantra’s always in my mind, I suppose in all of our minds, as I fill my lungs with the precious air that I’m not worthy to touch, as I inhale and purify myself and as I exhale and potentially soil the world around me–-ex-hale, no longer whole or holy, I think.

The world is a beautiful place, again. Temperatures are constant within a natural range in each of the four seasons. Sea levels do not rise and are in fact muzzled back to non-land-devouring lows. Their retreat is matched by the reciprocal super slow-motion lashing out of glacier tongues worldwide, a harmonious yin-yang interplay between different physical states of the same element. The rapid, exponential extinction of species is no more. Nature is balanced again–-a violent balance to be sure, but a balance secured by the natural violence of natural instincts: meaning a great chain of being that has become a circle of life again. No one force, whether elemental, floral or faunal, has the upper hand anymore.

We are told that this is paradise. And it is. It might even be the first real paradisiac space in all of history that is not an enclosure, based on an exclusion of outside space, unless you count outer space. Our paradise spans the entire globe and is thus without limits or borders. And yet, it too is the product of an enclosure, albeit a figurative one.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. As I inhale and exhale, I am reminded that the enclosure is not just figurative. And I’m glad of it. My exhalation does not stain the world anymore.

I look at the world and I see beauty all around. The sun is reflected in the glistening surface of the lake below, the twittering of birds can be heard from the green forest above. The dewy coolness of early morning has turned into a pleasant warmth as the sun playfully sublimates shadow into light. I’m sitting on the green grass of the open meadow surrounding our village, eyes closed, a cool breeze gently moderating the warming of my skin by the morning sun.

We are told that we cannot sin anymore. Once, the world had been shaped in a way that every human action, regardless of good or bad intention, was turned into evil itself by the machinery of industrialised desire. Now the machinery has been reborn as goodness itself, within and without.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. It used to be in the background, unobserved from the moment that cord was cut, breathing that is–taken for granted, unless you had something like pneumonia or were dying.

Approaching footsteps wake me from my daydreaming. The people from my village are making their way to the Shack on the lakeshore, as will I in a moment. The Shack is the one thing that we kept from the world before. It looks as if on the verge of collapse, as it is constructed of half-burnt logs. It was missing from my earlier description of the view from the meadow, as its exterior is of such a dark black approaching fuligin or what was known as an Oreo biscuit, that it seems, like a black hole, to swallow all light, making it barely visible to the unobservant eye. It is two storeys high, shows no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and bears in every feature the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. 

We are told that we need neither prison nor cemetery. We have the Shack and our Henriarts.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. I take my place on the semi-circular concrete stands inside the Shack. Today I’m sitting between Brenda and Tyler, although I cannot be completely sure, as there is no lighting inside the shack, except for the monochrome glow of the screen in front of us. All I can discern is the pale glowing of their cheeks showing between the Velcro straps of their dark goggles. When I think of Brenda, a sharp pang of my Henriart makes me sit up straight.

Somebody entering the Shack for the first time would be surprised by how much bigger the interior is than could be guessed from the outside. This is easily explained as the ground level of the Shack forms only a small foyer to the main hall, which has been hewn into the underground rock and which can be reached by narrow staircases interrupting the semi-circular stands. When everybody has settled into their places, the faintly glimmering screen comes to life. The daily lesson begins.

We are told where we come from and how we got here.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. Brenda’s and Tyler’s upper arms are barely touching mine, again my Henriart reacts, this time faintly, to Brenda’s touch, and I feel the rhythmic heaving of their chests, inhaling and exhaling, gradually synching with my own, with everyone else’s. Everybody’s breathing through their mouths, as all our noses are covered by the protective covers of our goggles–as they often are.

On the screen we are shown grainy archive footage in black and white from the Age of Contamination. People sit in open carriages, which are comically moved just a little bit too fast by something called the internal combustion engine. Their faces are ablaze with smiles of innocent and childish excitement. They seem to speak to each other, although apparently in an inaudible language, just as we do. As I watch these images, another stinging pang from my Henriart reminds me of their true horrific nature. Suddenly the people’s faces appear deformed by their smiles, become garishly threatening masks of clowns turned mass-murdering Jokers.

We are told that while the infernal motion machine did not form the beginning of the Age of Contamination, it certainly and ironically did accelerate it. Despite containing the explosions of its fuel within the engine, it released something much more toxic into the environment. 

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. My heart beats and every beat pumps precious oxygen through my body. Every breath replenishes my blood with it once more.

As we leave the auditorium I cannot help but think how the infernal motion machine was an attempt to make it do what the heart does, an attempt to harness the heart’s occult power and bend it to use. And yet, here we are with our hearts literally harnessed instead, the Henriarts keeping our futile dreams and desires of perpetuum mobiles in check.

We are told that there is no such thing as the perpetuum mobile. We are told that the human heart’s belief in the latter nearly destroyed the world. The heart is no more an automobile than the latter was.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. The mouthpiece of my breathing apparatus is connected by a slender accordion tube to the nitrogen-oxygen tank fixed to the docking port of my Henriart. The suction of my inhalation opens the valve to the tank. When I exhale, the carbon-dioxide is sucked into the exhalation compartment of the tank. It is supposed to feel like breathing underwater with an antiquated scuba breathing apparatus–except without the surrounding water.

The people of our village are leisurely walking back to their compounds in small flocks, doing small talk in sign language. Brenda is walking some steps ahead of me, wildly gesticulating to one of her friends. Her auburn hair is gently flickering in the breeze like a perpetual brushfire. Air from the tanks lasts for a few hours, so there is no hurry. We must wear the tanks whenever we are not in a compound, which have their own air recycling system, and in the Shack, which does too, but there the purpose is to remind us of where we came from.

We are told that people used to breathe without tanks outside in the Age of Contamination. But of course, that’s not the worst they used to do.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. In the compounds we can take our breathing apparatuses off, disconnect the tanks from the docking ports of our Henriarts and plug them into the air-replenishing centres, so they’re ready for our next outing.

After the daily lesson, it is time for the communal meal with all the members of our compound unit. One of the Saints says grace and we eat. The people we share our lives with are the people who happen to be needed in the same place. We live where we work. No need to contaminate the world by commuting. Our Henriarts ensure that we accept and even embrace this.

We are told that, as the Age of Contamination was headed towards its climax, the crisis also offered, for the first time in history, a sharp and clear perspective on good and evil. Finally, after thousands of years of philosophical and religious dispute, moral and ethical behaviour could be measured: unbiased, unprejudiced, fair. Now every human action, the goodness of the heart itself even, could truly be weighed against the amount of CO2 it produced. For what good was human kindness if you gained a soul but lost the whole physical world?

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. I relish every single breath I take without my breathing apparatus as I’m fucking Linda. My body releases the appropriate chemicals of sexual excitement and lust. And as our spent yet fulfilled bodies lie next to each other, recovering from the act and greedily replenishing their bloodstreams with oxygen, Linda turns over to me, her soft dark hair grazing my temples. The gaze of her dark eyes, half-burned embers in the twilight, fixes on me as she whispers, “I love you.”

My body wants to scream the same back at her, yet for some reason I say nothing and just smile at her. It isn’t that we are not a perfect match, our Henriarts made and are making sure of that: the butterflies, the sweet tingling sensation of our touch, the heads over heels, it’s all there–and yet. But as I can’t quite put my finger on it, I lose myself in her soothing, post-coital embrace, as we both slowly drift off to sleep, shrouded in the invisible cloud of our exhalations.

We are told that humanity had resembled an addict, drunkenly teetering towards the abyss in a state of denial. Even after most people had accepted the anthropogenic causes of global warming, humanity continued in a paralyzed stupor to wallow on its path of overconsumption. Here the sharp edges of our carbon footprint were as plainly delineated in front of us as the naked footprint in Robinson Crusoe’s case was in the sand, and yet, like Crusoe, we put off facing the reality for a while. But unlike Crusoe, we did not find consolation in the thought that it was our own footprint. The true horror of our situation was the inverse of Crusoe’s. There were no savages threatening us. Nobody else there. No one to blame but our monstrous selves. And as with any addiction, the longer we put off detoxing, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms would be, the more powerful the monster would become, the more radical our efforts to release its choking grip on us would have to be. Here we were, no longer being able to borrow from the future to help us through the present grief.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. As long as we breathe in the same air, so to speak, as long as our paths in life remain aligned, Linda and I will stay together. Our Henriarts willing, we might even breathe old together, give breath to a child, which in time will fill the space of our own breathing.

There are not many children in our community, however. Camilla and Jorge are the only ones expecting a child. The first newcomer in several years. Our Henriarts make sure that the threat of overpopulation remains a phantom menace of the past: no more exponential, uncontrollable growth. There are of course fluctuations in our midst. A rigid stability would not be suitable to the harmonious dance with the natural world. Instead, our numbers behave more like a sinewave, rising and falling, like liquid overflowing and retreating from the opening and closing gaps of our paradise.

We are told that overpopulation was not the real cause of the Age of Contamination. Like the infernal motion machine, it served as an accelerant, brought the real issue into sharp relief. 

With the true nature of things finally revealed through the focussing lens of our carbon footprints, many of the human activities once deemed attractive, filled more and more people with utter disgust. This reversal in perspective worked like one of those pictures in which one first sees, for example, two beautiful women playing chess, before, with a bit of distance to the picture, one discovers that they form a skull. Once you see the skull, the women are stained, can never become those innocent beauties of the innocent gaze again.

While, for example, flying to far away holiday destinations had been deemed an attractive act of the global rich, worthy of praise and emulation by the world’s rabble of have-nots, the aura that the act produced gradually changed from a consumerist-saintly halo to the equivalent of bad breath: a murderous, toxic bad breath at that. As every flight shortened the life span of others, public opinion began more and more to sense the true serial-killing nature behind the attractive façade of the tanned holiday-returnees: the manipulative smiles of pure white teeth resembling crisp freshly-fallen snow, were in reality the reptile, ravenous, spotted and speckled fangs of a Ted Bundy.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. My breath becomes laboured as I go about my daily business. I’ve been assigned to general maintenance, a janitor of sorts. My job is, beside exchanging LED-lightbulbs, upkeep of all sorts. Right now I’m standing on a ladder applying sealant to one of the window frames of a third-floor compound window–God forbid air should leak from the compound. I’m wearing my breathing apparatus of course.

I’ve never left my village. The only reason to travel in our world is, when your specialised skills are needed elsewhere. But even that rarely happens these days, as our global society is neatly organised, the specific training of workers occurring in the place the specific skills are needed.

We are told that more and more people gradually started to adjust their lifestyles with regard to CO2 emissions. At first this trend occurred on a voluntary basis and was restricted to a dreaming few. Pioneers of eco-friendliness saw themselves as modern ascetics, absorbing the sins of the unregenerate eco-fiends by radically reducing their own consumption. Some even went a step further and limited their offspring to two or three, thus even preventing the production of thousands of tons of toxic CO2 in the first place. The most fervent ones–the true saints of the rotten Age of Contamination–even took it upon themselves to forego procreation altogether. Some of them attempted the impossible akin to squaring the circle or dividing by zero and achieved the feat of not having just one or two children, but three or four, the most virtuous ones even of not having hundreds or thousands. The saintly dignity of these latter few, who later became the leaders of the movement that founded our paradise, was so radiant–a resplendent inverse of the hideousness of the extravagance of the plebeians and eco-fiends–that they so utterly and completely eclipsed their own shortcomings in the form of flights, use of cars, consumption of meat etc. as to vaporize them into total non-existence. 

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. Despite her machine head, despite the glowing stains of the three Borromean rings of her Henriart on her bosom, Brenda’s fiery beauty is radiant, irradiating my whole being, as my breath grows faster and I reach climax to my mind’s image of her.

Pleasure and pain are commingled, as I am immediately punished by my Henriart for wasting breath. The rings are heating up within my chest and sear my flesh from inside out. I steel myself against the burning heat, and yet the sensation seems not altogether physical. I imagine that this is what it must feel like to be branded with a red-hot iron. Then, as the pain subsides, my breathing slows down, I exhale sharply, my body shudders and relaxes into an unrestful sleep.

We are told that there was no way around the unrepentant being LED to salvation. By refusing the Henriarts they had sealed their own fate. Their gift of death prevented the release of thousands of tons of CO2 into the air. They redeemed themselves in death and helped pave the way to our paradise. Thus they became the general symbol vivifying and embodying our own frailty and sinful passion. Their sacrifice will always be remembered.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. Camilla has gone into labour. Her screams have been emanating from the medical wing, reverberating in the whole compound for hours. We hope for her and the baby to survive. But our Henriarts console us with the vibration that it would be sinless motherhood if they don’t.

I am woken up by her screams, disoriented, half remembering the scattered pieces of a dream. I am standing alone on the open expanse of our meadow. As I look around the wildly growing flora resplendent in the sunlight and the teeming life of insects, I fill my lungs with clean air. I hardly notice that I’m not wearing my breathing apparatus, that’s how natural it feels. But now, being awake, the memory of the feeling is slipping fast, until I even forget that this has been a recurring dream.

We are told that the torching of witches, the incineration of the Jews was misguided. It had been tempting and would have been irrefutable proof: if they burn, they are guilty. But it was not the road for us to be taken. The enlightenment of the unrepentant would thus indeed have been a toxic burnt offering. It was necessary to contain the contaminated, as they had brought shame upon us all. On the screen we are shown a hillside captured from a distance. It looks as if covered in giant bubble-wrap, an attempt at landscape art. As the camera zooms in closer, one can see that there are people inside the individual bubbles, each in their own seclusion from human society, strapped to electrodes by their hands and feet. Their white teeth are gleaming in the sunlight. We are told that each bubble is a giant LED lightbulb. The camera zooms out again and suddenly the hillside explodes into luminescence. LED there be light, the caption reads on the screen.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out–breathe in. Camilla’s screams have ceased and have been choked by a heavy blanket of silence. The softer sounds of crying and cooing of a baby and the exhausted, relieved pantings of a new mother are too meek to reach our part of the compound. We will know soon if the joyful sine waves have embarked on their journey through the air at all.

If the baby lives, it will soon receive the gift of the Henriart. The latter will grow and intertwine itself with the child’s flesh, will inscribe our laws into its little heart, sometimes with the playful gentleness of soap bubbles, sometimes with the searing markings of a branding iron.

We are told that the best way to understand the Henriarts is through a story. This is the story. Once upon a time there was a King who reigned justly over all the earth. The King had a faithful servant called Henry, who helped the King with all his heart and all his strength to take good care of the kingdom. But it so happened that an evil witch had gained the King’s trust with false promises of great riches. Soon, all the King’s subjects and all the creatures on the earth and the earth itself began to suffer. Eventually, the King was turned into a frog and robbed of his kingdom. Faithful Henry was so deeply miserable about the situation that he had three iron bands fastened around his heart to stop it bursting with anger.

***

I am standing alone again on the meadow with my back facing the village and the Shack. Towards the boundary of the meadow, where the deep dark forest begins, I can see a figure beckoning me to join her. I think it’s Brenda, with her hair flickering in the breeze like a burning bush, but I cannot be sure, as she is too far away. But whoever it is, she’s not wearing her breathing apparatus. She stops beckoning and turns, approaching the forest. Then she turns again, with what I think is a faint smile, to see if I’m following her. I breathe in through my frogman mask. I feel a deep longing washing through my whole body. I breathe out. I breathe in again and hold my breath, tense my muscles and press the air towards my heart with all my strength. A cracking noise echoes through the open expanse. Something is burning its way from the inside of my chest out, being violently thrown against the porous walls of my ribcage. A circle of searing flesh forms on my chest. Then, having made its way through the interstices of my ribs, the thing burns through my skin and falls to the ground with a metallic thud and shudders into silence. I look in agony and disbelief at the slender, nipple-sized ring. It is sticky, still sizzling with torched tissue remains, but smaller than I imagined. Despite the burning torture on my breast I press even harder until again and once again something cracks and exits my chest, clanging to the ground. I breathe out and collapse. With a final effort I rip my breathing apparatus from my mouth and greedily breathe in the oxygen of the open air for the first time in my life. This elixir of life is so reinvigorating that after a while I can even stand up. My eyes fasten themselves upon the three intertwined, branding marks imprinted in my flesh, below which formerly the iron links of mutual crime lay buried. The flesh is still tender from the searing heat, sticking to the fabric of my singed shirt, but the wounds have already started to scar. I look up towards the forest and start marching, my hand over my heart, towards it, towards Brenda, oblivious of the footprints I leave behind in the tall grass.

— Daniel M. Cojocaru was born and grew up in Switzerland (of Rumanian and Czech background). He studied English Lit in Zurich and later did his PhD at Oxford University (St. Peter’s College). But, since everybody’s a critic, he decided to start writing fiction himself, whenever his kids let him. He teaches English in Wetzikon, Switzerland. Recently he took a small step for mankind but a big one for himself and joined Twitter and created his own Facebook page.