Short Story: “Symbolism and Intent”

Everyone is a learner, a doer, and a teacher. Pay attention. (This is part of a series related to my novel, “Burnout Fever”, which is available for the Nook reader and app. Catch up from the links listed here or here.”)

“Symbolism and Intent”
Part 4 of a series
By P. Orin Zack

Derek Boa’s pace slowed as Bartholdi’s Fountain came into view from the sidewalk along Independence Ave SW in the Capital District. He hadn’t met Richard yet, and only had Gisella’s breathless description of him to go on. Between the people passing in front of him, he scanned the area, looking for, as Gisella had put it, a ‘Gary Cooper type’, if the actor had been a few inches short of 6 foot, and spent his time playing soccer.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to check everyone’s profile, because a guy in a blue warmup jacket was staring at him, and waving a half-wrapped candy bar in the air. As Derek started towards him, the man took a bite and stuffed the rest in his pocket.

“You’re Derek, aren’t you.”

It was a statement. If this was Richard, he had a bit of an Aussie twang. Boa shrugged. “Yeah. I guess the ladies told you what I look like, huh?”

“Not really. Didn’t need to. I just have a knack, a gift, you could say.”

Richard had suggested they meet for a lunch chat by the fountain, and each was carrying a bag. The longest open area along the low wall surrounding Bartholdi’s wedding cake of a cast-iron fountain was off to the left, so they wandered over while making small talk. Once the formalities were dispensed with, Derek gestured back towards the sidewalk he’d entered from.

“So what’s with this knack you’ve got?”

He took a bite of his sandwich. “Variation on psychometry, really. Tell yourself you can sense something, and after a bit you can. People use it for all sorts of stuff. Finding water, missing keys. I’m better with people, myself.”

Derek looked askance. “You just told yourself you could pick me out, and then did it. Like magic.”

“Worked, didn’t it?”

“Listen, a friend of mine in Seattle is into magic. It’s his religion, I guess.”

Richard downed some water from the bottle on his belt-clip. “Wiccan?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“I’m more of an independent. Don’t go by the book, or anything like that. So, for instance, that psychometry I just did. All you need is to decide what you want to do – your intent, and figure some way to represent it to yourself – a symbol. For pegging you, I used the feel of snakeskin. All the rest is just details.”

Derek winced at the overused joke, and looked around for an exit. “Symbols,” he muttered.

“Sure. The world’s full of them.”

“Oh, yeah? Then what’s all the froufrou ironwork in this fountain mean?” he asked, glancing at the profusion of figures ringing the core.

“Not a clue. Never thought about it. But I’ll tell you what. Since you’re curious, you can take the assignment. Let me know what you come up with.”

Derek stared at him for a moment. “What did you just say?”

He shrugged. “It’s your idea, so you get the work ticket. Why?”

“Did Melissa put you up to this? For payback?”

Richard laughed. “Payback? No. Ping-fa, maybe. You sent her off to translate ‘The Art of War’ for peacefare. Well, you just lost a round on the field of babble. Think about it. We’re his Commanders. Words and ideas are our armies. Only instead of engaging your adversary in battle, you engage him in collaboration. Delegation by accession. Most of Sun Tzu’s advice works for verbal jousts as easily as for the REAL sport of kings.”

Derek finished his sandwich without a further word. Trapping people into volunteering was one of his favorite ploys, and pulling it on Melissa during her first visit with the activist crew he’d drawn into Constitutional Evolution was a bit premature, even for him. Now he was feeling guilty about having done it. He hadn’t realized that he’d zoned out on introspection when he felt a knuckle in the ribs.

“You still there? Looks like you went compute-bound for a bit.” Richard snapped off the back end of his candy bar, then offered it up. “Here. Try some of this. The chocolate’s good for the grey matter. It’s one of those new time-release things. They claim the effect lasts for hours.”

Derek was about to pop it into his mouth when someone inserted a fluorescent green flier between him and his treat.

“Don’t you know what’s in that stuff?”

Richard grabbed the man’s wrist and eased it away. “Malcolm Jeffries. Good to see you again.”

“Do I know you?”

While the two wrangled verbally, Derek slipped the paper free and glanced it over. There was a hearing scheduled that afternoon in congress about a new wave of genetically modified organisms in the food chain. The sheet had scare stories, contact info for some companies, and which of their products contained the GMOs. He scanned down the list and found the one Richard had brought. He held up the piece of chocolate bar, which was starting to melt, to get Jeffries’ attention. “You’re drumming up a crowd for a protest?”

“The more the better. Interested?”

Richard shook his head in amusement. “A symbolic gesture? Funny you should bring that up. We were just talking about what all them critters and such in that fountain all meant to the guy who made it. Bartholdi, was it?”

Jeffries’ face hardened. “It’s not symbolic. Protests directly affect what goes on in government. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

“Sure it is. For one thing, it’s a symbol of your opposition to the idea of food scientists messing with molecules.”

“Messing with food.” He corrected.

“Not really. Food’s just a symbol you use to represent the idea that the body you inhabit can make use of certain other bits of the world for nourishment.” He paused for a moment as a flicker of puzzlement crossed Jeffries’ face. “They’re just messing with the molecules in that bit of the world.”

“Same thing. What’s your point?”

“Just that if you’re going to engage in a magical act, you really ought to know what you’re doing.”

“Magic?” Derek was lost, and looked it. “Where’d that come from?”

Richard closed his eyes and took a breath. “In simple terms, magic is nothing more than the application of some symbol for a chosen purpose, an intent. Both of you are involved in political activity of some sort. You use different methods, have different goals, but both of you share a common symbol – one that represents a government which is honest and responsive to the needs of the people.”

Derek absently popped the chocolate into his mouth, and licked his fingers. Jeffries blanched.

“But the government isn’t the symbol. It’s lots of people all doing things for whatever personal reasons they may have. And your hope, the hope you each carry into your actions, is that there’s a relationship between what you do, and what that government does. Both of you put energy into performing activities intended to help direct that government so that it conforms to your symbol for it. In other words, you’re both trying to control one thing by acting on another. That’s called sympathetic magic.”

Jeffries drew back. “What’s that got to do with the GMOs in what your friend here just ate?”

“Changing some of the molecules, engineering the corn, or whatever it was they put into the chocolate, is no different from swapping out one group of bureaucrats for another. The government’s still the government. It may act slightly different, but it’s still performing the same function. Same thing with food. Swap some molecules, and it’s still nourishment. Both of you are concerned with the nature of a symbol. Derek wants to change the one that our government resonates to, and you’re opposed to changes in one that our bodies resonate to.”

“Look. All I wanted was to find out if either of you wants to join the protest. Can I get a straight answer from someone?”

Richard finished his chocolate and handed him the crumpled wrapper. “No thanks. But I would appreciate it if you’d find a basket for that. Unless, of course, you think those molecules can hurt you just by touching them.”

Jeffries dropped the wrapper and stormed off.

Derek watched him for a few seconds, then turned back to Richard. “Why’d you do that?”



“Sure. Sun Tzu builds on the assumption of there being two adversaries, each represented and directed by a commander. He says to compare the leaders and their armies as a way to gauge the situation, because from that assessment, all else follows.”

Derek nodded, then shifted his gaze towards the fountain.

“The thing is, there’s a side-effect to making that assessment. Comparison, with the intent of determining dominance, means looking for differences. By doing it, you affect the symbols you harbor representing the two sides, further strengthening the distinction. Take that to an extreme, which is not something Sun Tzu suggests, and you end up with the kind of good versus evil dichotomy that fuels religious wars.”

While Richard talked, Derek studied the trio of robed figures in the middle of the cast iron sculpture and wondered what they were.

“Well, if we’re turning the idea around, wouldn’t you want to start by seeing how the parties are alike?”

In the silence that followed, Derek slowly turned back towards Richard. “There’s something else. Something you’re not telling me. That was meant for both of us. Why?”

He shrugged. “You guys are born adversaries. I told you. I have a knack.”


[Afterword: the story continues in “Hidden Baggage“.]

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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