Monday, May 7, 2012

From the Top Shelf - The Persistence of Vision

I've started to read science fiction again, and picked up a collection called The Persistence of Vision by John Varley. The short story of the same name, written in 1978, is about a hitchhiker travelling across America who happens across a desert commune with a difference. All the inhabitants were born deaf and blind; they communicate by touch and have evolved a complicated system of language. Their children can all see and hear, and the narrator is assisted by one of the children - a teenage girl he calls "Pink". In this excerpt, he has broken one of their rules and has caused an injury to a woman he refers to as "Scar". the community conducts an impromptu meeting to establish the facts and decide his fate. Pink acts as translator and after a brief trial, the group deliberates.

I got up and stood by the wall, not wanting to look at them as the debate went back and forth through the joined hands. There was a burning lump in my throat that I could not swallow. Then I was asked to rejoin the circle.

"The penalty for your offense is set by custom. If it were not so, we would wish we could rule otherwise. You now have the choice of accepting the punishment designated and having the offence wiped away, or of refusing our jurisdiction and withdrawing your body from our land. What is your choice?"

I had Pink repeat this to me, because it was so important that I know what was being offered. When I was sure I had read it right, I accepted their punishment without hesitation. I was very grateful to have been given an alternative.

"Very well. You have elected to be treated as we would treat one of our own who had done the same act. Come with us."

Everyone drew in closer. I was not told what was going to happen. I was drawn in and gently nudged from all directions. Scar was sitting with her legs crossed more or less in the center of the group. She was crying again, and so was I, I think. It's hard to remember. I ended up face down across her lap. She spanked me.

I never once thought of it as improbable or strange. It flowed naturally out of the situation. Everyone was holding on to me and caressing me, spelling assurances into my palm and legs and neck and cheek. We were all crying. It was a difficult thing that had to be faced by the whole group. Others drifted in and joined us. I understood that this punishment came from everyone there, but only the offended person, Scar, did the actual spanking. That was one of the ways I had wronged her, beyond the fact of giving her a scraped knee. I had laid on her the obligation of disciplining me and that was why she had sobbed so loudly, not from the pain of her injury, but from the pain of knowing she would have to hurt me.

Pink later told me that Scar had been the staunchest advocate of giving me the option to stay. Some had wanted to expel me outright, but she paid me the compliment of thinking I was a good enough person to be worth putting herself and me through the ordeal. If you can't understand that, you haven't grasped the feeling of community I felt among these people.

It went on for a long time. It was very painful, but not cruel. Nor was it primarily humiliating. There was  some of that, of course. But it was essentially a practical lesson taught in the most direct terms. Each of them had undergone it during the first months, but none recently. You learned from it, believe me.

I did a lot of thinking about it afterward. I tried to think of what else they might have done. Spanking grown people is really unheard of, you know, though that didn't occur to me until long after it had happened. It seemed so natural when it was going on that the thought couldn't even enter my mind that this was a weird situation to be in.

They did something like this with the children, but not as long or as hard. Responsibility was lighter for the younger ones. The adults were willing to put up with an occasional bruise or scraped knee while the children learned. But when you reached what they thought of as adulthood—which was whenever a majority of the adults thought you had or when you assumed the privilege yourself—that's when the spanking really got serious.

They had a harsher punishment, reserved for repeated or malicious offenses. They had not had to invoke it often. It consisted of being sent to Coventry. No one would touch you for a specified period of time. By the time I heard of it, it sounded like a very tough penalty. I didn't need it explained to me.

I don't know how to explain it, but the spanking was administered in such a loving way that I didn't feel violated. This hurts me as much as it hurts you. I'm doing this for your own good. I love you, that's why I'm spanking you. They made me understand the old cliches by their actions.

When it was over, we all cried together. But it soon turned to happiness. I embraced Scar and we told each other how sorry we were that it happened. We talked to each other—made love if you like—and I kissed her knee and helped her dress it. We spent the rest of the day together, easing the pain.


Aimless Rambling said...

Lovely excerpt. Will look further into his stories. Thanks for sharing

Hermione said...

Sunnygirl - Thanks. I thought it was rather special. I like his writing.


Daisychain said...

Wow...what a lovely story! Thanks for sharing, Hermione. xxx

Hermione said...

Daisy - I'm glad you enjoyed it.


ronnie said...

I'm not one for science fiction books but I did enjoy this lovely little excerpt Hermione. Thank you.


Hermione said...

Ronnie - It isn't the usual type of sci-fi at all. Glad you liked it.


otk4us2 said...

I am a bit like Ronnie, not a big Si-Fi fan, but this little excerpt was wonderful. That type of accountability would be very refreshing in real life, thanks for sharing Hermione.