In this July podcast we chat with Sunday Writers Club member Twan Zegers about his writing, and Twan reads for us his latest story essay, Caravan of the Apocalypse
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Come up with the ending for your new story title: Caravan of…
Caravan of the Apocalypse
Caravan of the Apocalypse
One day, I left the house on an expedition in search of chicken necks for my cat. As far as quests go, this one wasn’t much to write home about: the butcher’s shop was only a short walk up the road and I wasn’t likely to find dragons, sphinxes, or any other mythical beings blocking my way. I had every reason to be confident in the success of my mission. Still, I was nervous.
As I closed the door to my apartment building behind me and started walking along the linden-lined street, I repeated the Czech phrase for chicken necks to myself. I had looked the phrase up on Google Translate, as my Czech was still rudimentary at the time. Of course, it wasn’t impossible that the butcher would turn out to have a decent command of English, but ordering in the local language seemed the polite thing to do.
The Czech for chicken necks is something of a tongue twister, a riot of k’s and r’s that could have done with a few more vowels. I was worried that I would forget the phrase, or that I would mispronounce it so badly as to prompt the butcher to ask me to elaborate, a request which I in turn might not understand – and even if I did, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to say.
These are not things a cat would worry about. Cats are unlike virtually every other domesticated species in that they are not gregarious animals. They don’t live together in packs like dogs, nor do they form herds like horses. Cats are solitary, independent and self-sufficient – any attempt at peer pressure is like water off a duck’s back to them.
Although my trip to the butcher’s would only be a short one and I had only just stepped foot outside my door, I was already starting to feel exhausted. It was a hot summer’s day, around noon; the asphalt of the road shimmered in the distance. The lime trees that adorned the street offered only moderate relief.
An airily dressed girl came walking towards me, and as I bashfully averted my gaze – don’t want to give her the wrong idea – I imagined myself in a far-away desert, in a caravan, on my way from some exotically-named oasis to an even more outlandishly monikered market town, where I would trade myrrh, maybe, or incense or gold for copper or dates. Having made my trade, I would return to my oasis before traveling on to another desert emporium, where I would make another trade, before turning back again through the same featureless landscape, like my father and his father before him had done, a nomadic existence suspended in time.
As I got closer to the butcher’s shop, I could feel my grip on the phrase I had memorised start to slip. I still had some sense of the individual sounds that made it up, but I had a hard time remembering the order they were supposed to go in. And where to put the few vowels that I was pretty sure were in there? Which vowels were they again, anyway?
The linden trees lining the street I was walking along were a reminder of home: the tree-lined street was a Dutch invention, or so I’d been told, resulting in the French borrowing the word “bolwerk” (meaning “bulwark”) as “boulevard”, and inspiring the Prussians to construct that most famous of Berlin streets, Unter den Linden (“under the lime trees”). I didn’t know to what extent what I’d been told was true, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if most of it was. For one thing, Holland must, in a sense, be the most domesticated of countries. Every inch of it is tended to, from its flat fields and straight canals to its brick-paved streets and gabled townhouses. Everywhere, the use of what little space is available is planned down to the minutest detail, so it wouldn’t be unexpected at all for an innovation in town planning – which the tree-lined street must once have been – to have originated in my country.
Another piece of evidence in favour of this idea is that tree-lined streets were once ubiquitous in the Netherlands, so much so that they turn up in a tongue twister every Dutch child is taught: “Liesje leerde Lotje lopen langs de lange lindenlaan.” The only reason elms have become somewhat rarer in Dutch cities is that we ended up planting too many of them: the Dutch townscape became a virtual monoculture, which made its main attraction easy prey for the aptly named Dutch elm disease.
Coming up to the last road I’d have to cross before arriving at the butcher’s, another girl crossed my path. She was leading a tiny dog on a leash. When I first came to the Czech Republic, this had been one of the small differences that immediately caught my eye: back home, girls her age didn’t tend to have dogs – if they had any pet at all, it was likely to be a cat. The Czech Republic, generally, is a much more cynophile place than Holland is: I had looked up the stats, and the Czech Republic has by far the highest number of dogs per capita in the EU, whereas Holland has some of the least. For cats, the statistics are reversed.
I wondered how this situation might have come about, and I came up with an admittedly far-fetched explanation. It went like this: if the Dutch could be described as the most domesticated of nations – and weren’t they famous for bringing their homes with them even when they went on holiday, turning motorways into processions of caravans as they migrated south every summer? –, and cats were the least domesticated of animals, then perhaps keeping cats served some sort of moral or symbolic function, like the skulls that turn up in Dutch still-lives to remind observers of their mortality. Maybe cats served as a reminder that even the tamest creature harboured something of the wild within it, or maybe they signified the opposite idea, namely that even the unruliest agent of chaos can be brought to heel.
I was now only a few steps away from the butcher’s front door. I realised that in the meantime, I had completely forgotten the Czech words for chicken necks. I could already see the scene that was about to unfold: I would enter and start stuttering, unable to explain myself. More customers would slowly start trickling into the shop and, as I continued to make a fool of myself, those customers – not to mention the butcher himself – would start sighing, tutting, and giving each other looks, rolling their eyes at this clueless foreigner wasting their time. Eventually, I would give up and leave, humiliated and empty-handed. I decided to keep walking, past the butcher’s shop, and to take another short walk around the block to give myself some time to steady my nerves.
Because I hadn’t been planning to go on a longer walk, I hadn’t brought a water bottle with me. My mouth was getting dry and I could feel a throbbing at my temples. I imagined myself in the desert again, in that caravan, not en route to a market town this time, but at an oasis, and not under the scorching midday sun, but at night. I imagined a still, almost perfectly circular pond reflecting the full moon’s light, the silhouettes of palm trees, camels and their riders outlined against the sky above it. This fantasy was probably inspired by a print I had recently come across, a depiction of a caravan passing along a beach at night, somewhere in Arabia.
Though this orientalist image was made in Belgium, many similar ones had appeared in Holland around the same time, at the height of European imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century. By that time, the Kingdom of the Netherlands ruled over the second-largest colonial empire in terms of population, with most of that population living in what was called the Far East. Depictions of the Orient were often contradictory: it was a chaotic, wild, and mysterious yet unchanging and unthreatening place; an underdeveloped, antiquated land of untold riches, peopled by benighted yet wily half-savages; these down-trodden, indolent creatures were to be both liberated from the despots that lorded it over them and ruled over with an iron fist by the merchant adventurers sent there to instore order, peace, and prosperity by whatever means they saw fit.
The Netherlands had enthusiastically joined the European race to subjugate the rest of the world. It was a war that was fought not just with warships, guns and bayonets, but also with theodolites, callipers and abacuses, as the conquered regions and all that lived within them were measured, mapped and classified the better to be able to press both land and people into the service of humanity’s march of progress. And nor was it just foreign lands that were subjected to this treatment: back home, newly acquired scientific knowledge and engineering skills were harnessed to drain many of the lakes that took up half of the county of Holland’s land area; the fertile plains that emerged from the water were divided up into plots to be cultivated for profit by independent or rent-paying farmers.
Where was I? I had been lost in thought for quite a while, and I had to find my bearings. If my mental map of the city was accurate, a short walk into the park at the entrance of which I found myself would allow me to turn left and start my loop back to the butcher’s shop.
The park was very busy, as you would expect it to be on a sweltering day like this. All sorts of people were lounging on the lawns and strolling along the paths, sheltered from the sun by a canopy of blossoming trees. There were couples there, families with children, groups of teenagers. Quite a few of the park-goers had brought their dogs: I counted at least one each of French bulldogs, Yorkshire terriers, great Danes and German shepherds. It occurred to me that all of these names for dog breeds referred to familiar places, whereas the first cat breeds that sprang to mind – Burmese, Siamese and Persians – sounded more exotic to my ears.
Dogs, like all other domesticated animals barring cats, are bred for docility and profit. They come in all shapes and sizes: dachshunds are low to the ground and almost tubular, the better to allow them to chase badgers down their burrows; sighthounds, by contrast, stand tall on their legs and have flexible spines, which helps them help hunters chase game. In a similar way, we humans have bred cows to provide more milk, chickens to give us plenty of eggs, and sheep to grow as much wool as can possibly fit on their bodies. In the process, we have mutilated many of these animals to the point where they cannot walk or even breathe properly, yet we have been so successful in bending them to our will that they will literally “go like lambs to the slaughter”. And if ever our non-human slaves fail to obey – or merely threaten to –, we lash, brand, cage, chain, shred, leash, beat.
The first domesticated animal is often held to be the dog. But one hypothesis on how humans evolved to be the way they are contends that before we could start domesticating other animals, we first had to domesticate ourselves. Proponents of this theory point out that when you compare humans to our ape cousins, you see many of the same differences that you might notice if you compared domesticated animals to their wild ancestors. One that stands out especially is neoteny: the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, including external traits such as comparatively bigger heads and shorter snouts and behavioural peculiarities like greater docility, gregariousness, and playfulness. These behavioural changes make working together easier. They also help make the emergence of language more likely: after all, as linguist Steven Pinker has put it, you must be on speaking terms to be able to talk. It is even possible that language came about as a by-product of needing to separate the sheep from the goats: those that had the gregariousness and playfulness necessary to join in an imitation game of sounds and gestures would also have been the ones more likely to be cooperative. In this way, it may have served as a sort of secret handshake, helping our ancestors know who to trust and help, and who to shun, ostracize or even kill for the good of the others.
However language came about, though, after we obtained it, we spread all over the world. Our arrival on the different continents often coincides closely with the extinction of other big animals that had existed there for millions of years: mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and moas all seem to have been doing fine until we showed up. Today, domesticated animals’ and humans’ collective share of the Earth’s biomass is ten times as large as that of all wild mammals and birds combined.
I had made my left turn in the park and started my loop back to the butcher’s shop. As I got closer, I started to tense up again. I was very uncomfortable, not just because of the heat and thirst that were making me dizzy and giving me a headache, but also because my nervousness was making me paranoid: I was sure the people passing me on the street could tell how nervous I was and that they were quietly judging me for being so absurdly shy and insecure for a grown man, incapacitated by timidity to the point of not being able to carry out the simplest of everyday tasks.
I was beginning to consider not going to the butcher’s at all. After all, what had my cat ever done for me? Just that morning, he had bitten and scratched me, and his favourite pastimes included murdering my plants, tearing down my curtains and shedding hairs all over my furniture. What did I even get in return? Purring and head bumps and other signs of affection that were as much self-serving as they were favours to me. Really, how was my cat’s relationship with me any different from that of a cuckoo chick with its adoptive parents? It seemed likely that my cat was just using me as a vehicle to achieve its selfish goals, the way a parasite might, or the way certain ideas propagate throughout our culture, jumping from brain to brain to screen to page to brain despite not being of any apparent use or benefit to us at all. Progress. I’m loving it. For King and Country. Das Auto. Live laugh love. Just do it.
As the butcher’s shop’s sign came into view once more, a wave of pre-emptive resentment washed over me. Who were these people, this butcher and his simpleton customers, to judge me? I couldn’t help the fact that I happened to be a stranger in a strange land, looking for some chicken necks to feed my cat! Where else was I supposed to go? Did they expect me to go out into the forest to catch and kill some chickens with my bare hands, like some savage?
I was just about to put my hand on the door handle when I noticed a sign just above it. Even if my Czech was poor, I understood it to mean that the shop was closed on Mondays. Today was Monday. I tried my luck with the door handle anyway. In vain. It had been a long time since I had last felt such enormous relief.
Although I was glad I had been spared the humiliation of failing to ask for chicken necks in Czech, as I walked back along the tree-lined street my house was on, I decided to go back and try again tomorrow. Soon, I expected, the straws of humankind’s ever-worsening abuse of the Earth would pile up to the point of breaking the camel’s back, ushering in civilisation-ending catastrophe. Most of my country and the majority of its inhabitants would probably end up six feet under water.
Should I, by some miracle, survive this apocalypse, knowing some Czech would be useful in befriending some of the locals also trying to eke out a meagre existence among the charred ruins of what was once Prague. Even though I had no skills worth mentioning that would be of any use in a postapocalyptic hellscape, the same would probably be true of my fellow survivors. And who knew, they might even end up liking me for some reason.
At the very least, I could rest assured in the knowledge that, whatever the future might hold and whatever form the apocalypse
Sunday Writers' Club member
Twan Zegers (1986) is the editor-in-chief of 21, a multilingual literary review. He also likes to write essays and poetry. In his spare time, he works as a lecturer in linguistics and Dutch at Charles University in Prague and at the University of Vienna.