“…every portent is favorable, if I so wish”
The Encheiridion of Epictetus, XVIII
That night, the potoo that had taken up residence in his garden was at it again: poTOOtootootoo too. Meaning ‘dark business afoot’. The banshee bird, moon bird, ghost bird, call it by whichever name—poTOOtootootoo too—it still means death.
And he woke the next morning with a spring in his step. He had no control over omen birds, or what they saw in the stars, what they gleaned from moonlight, or riddled from the shadows of trees.
Over breakfast, he read the papers: The Herald; The Morning Moan; The Daily Dismay…The financial analysts all concurred: “zeros will drop from the indexes and markets will melt, companies crumble, reserves dissipate, lay-offs will ensue. Expect inflation. Avoid long queues.”
His wife was thumb-rolling one of her many social media feeds and drinking her morning coffee. She took a long gulp, and stared, horrified, into the bottom of the cup. She turned it toward him, eye-twitching, her face a shade too pale: in the dregs, a perfectly dainty death’s head, the grin dissolving into a Munchy scream as gravity did its work.
Yes, the signs, the signs: death, environmental disaster, social derailment, oceans rising, missiles flying, pandemics spreading. The potoo in his half-dead elm. So much benefit to be derived from all this opportunity!
As he headed for the front door, his dog grabbed hold of his trouser leg and wouldn’t let him go: “Come now, Vanga! What’s gotten into you, girl?” Vanga could only whimper as ripples of doggy panic spread through the dark ponds of her pleading eyes.
Out on the curb, a text from his brother exploded in customary bluster, all-caps blaring: Hired PI 4 U, bro: Itz official… MALUz BANGING UR BOSS!!! Repeat: UR BOSSz BANGING UR WIFE. Tues-n-Thurs, Roadkill Motel. Saw the pics (nice!). Told ya SIGNS all there!!!
Bless him. His brother, a rather excitable but endearing fellow, who pronounced stoic stoik (one syllable), had been on about Malu’s alleged infidelity for months now, but Marco had just shrugged it off: “they are their own masters, Frederico”, he’d invariably reply. “I can’t control what they do, so why should it bother me?” Did these furtive penetrations pierce his flesh? No, they did not. Make him bleed? Nope. But Fred, beetroot-red Fred: “Bro, it’s an offense against your manhood! You’re being demeaned!” It made the veins pop in his temples, which was quite scary. But Marco was stoic about it: Stoik-in-the-mud Marco: “If our manhood depended on the actions of others, Fred, we would all be eunuchs. Not a pair left among us”.
But men like Frederico want eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth, cahonies for cahonies. His pride led him on an endless bender of striving. Desire was the air Fred breathed: he binge-watched it, speed-read it, injected it by spinal tap.
Umbrella underarm (the forecast was dour), Marco proceeded at a brisk stride beneath the gathering storm clouds. It was Thursday, so when the boss left early for pilates (Oh! Pilates was Malu! Malu was his boss’s pilates!), he would be able to kick back and finish that book he was reading: Dialogues: Complete Collection of Seneca’s Stoic Essays and Letters. Reading made him feel free. He could control what he read, and you can only have freedom over something you control. Marco could not control the shortcomings of others, but he could control how he felt about the things they did. If a Knight behaves as a Knight will, and takes your Queen, what can you do about it? You lose your Queen, which is a dreadful piece to lose. You can only accept it, because you are not free of it, and you left your Queen undefended, after all. But your opinions and state-of-mind about the loss are not determined by the actions of the Knight, or the loss of such an important piece; they are yours alone to decide. As Epictetus said: “For no one will harm you without your consent; you will have been harmed only when you think you are harmed”.
Thunder cracked through the sky and there was a garish flash of lightning. A murder of crows burst from a tree bough and flew loudly over his head, left to right. He chuckled to himself. What was next? Would he bump into his doppelgänger, perhaps? Would a coyote cross in front of him, heading north, after a big black cat? Had he accidentally broken a mirror or stamped on a lady bug as he walked under a ladder? Oh the signs, the signs! Should he stop for a Tarot reading, just to chuckle at the Hanged Man, the Devil Card, and boney Death with his scythe? Should he consult the cowries, perhaps? See his fate in that scattering of little shells?
And see what? Stuff he could not control, and which could not affect him anyway, only his body, his reputation, his health, his people and possessions… “Take it all, poTOOtootootoo too, take it all! Free me to other possibilities!”
— Hey, pal!
Marco snapped out of it; straightened up.
— Don’t suppose you got a light?
Marco looked at the tall, amusingly ugly man leaning against a bare-brick wall. He had walked right past him without even seeing him. It was as though he blended perfectly into the concrete. He was staring at Marco with bulging eyes, the pinprick pupils like tiny black life rafts adrift on jaundiced seas.
—I’m sorry. I don’t smoke.
Marco was about to continue on his way, when the man’s voice detained him further.
— I ain’t asking for a cigarette.
Marco was momentarily confused.
—No, I thought you wanted a lighter, or a match.
—But I’m already smoking, ain’t I?—said the man, holding up a burning fag-end.
—Indeed you are. In that case I’m sure I don’t understand…
The lip of the man’s incredibly thin, wide mouth curled upwards at one end.
— I’m quite sure you don’t…
When Marco woke up again, he was blindfolded, but there was a cluster of tiny holes of candlelight in the fabric, around the corner of his left eye. The place smelled rank, almost certainly from frequent use for nefarious purposes. Marco’s hands were bound to the arms of a wooden chair, and his ankles, tied to the legs. He tried to listen…Nothing. He listened some more…poTOOtootootoo too. The all too familiar call.
— Oh good, you’re awake! Me too…Bit of a night-owl, myself.
The voice was the same country drawl he’d heard during that brief exchange in the street.
—Your boss didn’t stop calling your phone all day! Man, what is it with that guy? I checked your texts too, by the way…. Ain’t my place to say, but I gotta go with your bro on this one: you’re a stoic, dude; not a doormat!
Marco had a splitting headache. He swallowed hard and rolled his jaw, making it click painfully.
— You wouldn’t understand…
—Oh, you think I’m too dumb to understand the Stoics, is that it? Why? Coz of my tawdry coat, my simple country manner? My nondescript feathers?
— Can you take this blindfold off, please?
— No, see through it, dude. Like me, I can close my eyes and still see your dumb ass.
Marco was perplexed.
—You’re wondering what you’re doin’ here. What I’m doin’ keepin’ you here. Well, I gotta tell you, Marco Aurelio, you are a disgrace to the profession! The Guild ain’t happy, man!
— There’s a Bookseller’s Guild?
— No, numbnuts, the Ancient Guardians of the Stoa! The Stoics’ Guild!
Marco was staring blankly through the fabric of his blindfold. He was now truly confused. His captor was becoming not-so-stoicly irate.
— Now you’re gonna hear what’s what. The Guild has asked me to read you a “Very Important Letter of Rebuke”. You have any idea how rare that is! You oughta be ashamed, I mean ashamed with a capital Shame!
Marco cocked his head instinctively ten degrees to the right, which was something he did unawares whenever there was a need to correct the unexpected tilts and bends of reality. His captor cleared his throat and proceeded with gravitas:
— “Marco Aurelio Godoi de Caxias Jr. by the power invested in the High Council of Stoics we hereby regretfully issue the following rebuke, which is administered after our duty, and in the truest and most generous spirit”. [Dramatic pause] “In light of recent failures to honor the Stoic Code we hereby express our thorough disappointment”. [Even more dramatic pause]. “Signed, Carlos Alberto Chateaubriand III, Order of Zeno, Grand Master of the Potoo Lodge of the Ancient Guardians of the Stoa.”
— So there! Whaddaya have to say to that?
Marco had no clue what he had to say to that. None.
— I need to pee.
— I need to pee. I’ve been bound here for hours, without…
— Peeing, I get it…We’re nearly finished. Can’t you just hold it a little longer?
— Do I have a choice?
The bulgy-eyed, broad-mouthed, straight-backed, narrow-shouldered, ashen-faced, odd-voiced nightjar of a man shook his head apologetically, evidently forgetting that Marco was blindfolded. A beat or two passed, and Marco, still tied to the chair, decided acceleration was now a more promising strategy than disruption.
— So what was my violation?
— Palmeiras 2, Flamengo 1, cup final. You kicked a chair over and were most unkind about the referee’s mother…
Marco could only nod.
— There was that…yes.
The potoo nodded effusively.
— Epictetus said: “wish only for that to happen which does happen, and for him only to win who does win”.
Marco Aurelio wasn’t sure how to react to that.
— Of course he did. What on earth was I thinking…
—And now you must reaffirm your Oath, because dark times are coming, and the world needs us. The world needs calm spirits and sharp minds now more than ever. Can’t you smell it, Marco Aurelio? The reek of quetiapine? The stench of all that escitalopram; the billion-petaled death’s-rose of diazepam? The air is ablaze with fear, and rage, and anxiety…Ah, the anxiety! I can feel the tingling of the land, the frayed patience, the frazzled nerves! Can’t you? Can’t you feel it in your feathers?
— My whats?
The stranger seemed oddly enraptured for a stoic, but he spread his arms out wide and shook like some smoke-addled shaman.
— It gets you right in the humerals!
— I understand now; you think you’re a bird!
The gray man looked offended.
— I am not just a bird, Marco Aurelio. A potoo! The most stoic of birds. A member of the Nyctibiidae, a night bird, a dweller of the silence and the dark.
So skeptical is man! So literal. The person-potoo was upon the hapless Marco in a swift second, and ripped the blindfold from his eyes.
It was a flood. A deluge of memory. It was all Marco could see: his old fury, his unbridled childhood, his lusty, tempestuous adolescence. It came back to him in a terrible medley, a highlight reel of poisoned emotional responses; of envy and jealousy, greed and ambition. Wanting what he didn’t have, wanting what others had, wanting what he shouldn’t want. And where there is want and desire there is disappointment and frustration, and bitterness. He had experienced it all, and could feel it again now, all the striving and pride and vanity, like oil in his blood, clogging his arteries, depriving his starving brain of precious oxygen. He ached from the desire and fabricated need; he gasped for air, weighed down by the knot in his stomach, like a great big hairball in a cat, but this was other people’s hair; the fur of their insults, their arrogance, their victories over him; it was the great brown hair-sausage of his defeats, and he was gagging on it. All he could see was stars; tiny sundogs in his eyes. This was it: Marco was having an aneurysm. His brain was exploding…
— The phoenix bursts into flames, Marco, but what really rises from the ashes is the potoo! poTOOtootootoo too!
When Marco woke up again, it was still dark and he was sitting in a beach chair on the porch of a simple wooden shack overlooking a sloping hill full of massive termite mounds and dead, lightning-fired trees. He was not bound or blindfolded anymore, and his former captor was sitting by his side, looking pensive and serene.
— Welcome back, Marco Aurelio!
Thunder rolled loud overhead, and a stroke of lightning sent one of the trees below into a dazzling whoosh of orange flames.
— The signs, the signs, Marco! They are everywhere you turn! Just the day before yesterday a horned toad fell from the sky, smashed the windscreen of a passing car, which careened off the road and drove straight through the window of a sex shop, killing a priest, two teenage influencers, their cameraman, three housewives, a ninety year-old woman, and two shop assistants. The driver escaped with only minor cuts and bruises. It’s the signs, I’m telling you!
— Signs of what?
— The end is coming. It’s time for the Great Reset. It’s right round the proverbial corner.
— There’s no stopping it?
— No, why? Why would you want to stop it? No, it’s time to start over. But we, the Stoics of the world, have to prepare the people for it. We need to spread our potoo wings and the words of Zeno and Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus…We must prepare civilization for its end, so it may go out with a suitably stoic whimper. No screaming, no kicking, no unbecoming gnashing of teeth! Armageddon requires a stiff upper lip!
Marco Aurelio gazed upon the desolate hill, the mine-sacked mountains in the distance, the plundered forest, the mouse-gray smog cloud of the city just beyond. Humankind the industrial feller buncher, wheel excavator, trumpeting chimney stack!
— I will take your oath.
The potoo burst into a gaping pink grin.
As dawn peeped over the earth’s dark rim, just to check that the coast was clear, and that night had slunk west, dragging its moon-ball behind it on its great celestial chain, Marco Aurelio repeated after the ashen-faced potoo, more birdlike now than ever, in the tender half-light:
I, Marco Aurelio Godoi de Caxias Jr., solemnly swear to live as the potoo. Eschewing the pleasures of daylight, I shall make no nest, and take the dead branch only as my perch, the dry bark as my camouflage, the night as my cloak. Duty I shall observe in all that I do, and issue at night my mournful call, reminding the world that nothing is owned, not even life itself, and that all must be returned when the Giver demands. I shall spurn all fancy feathers, and despise all merry song, for true happiness is the naked virtue of the Night. This I shall offer the dying world, in word and in deed, until my days are done.
Six months later, Marco Aurelio had left his old job, his old boss, and the old boss’s lover, his former wife, and set up a 24-hour bookstore in the dankest, darkest corner of downtown São Paulo. Fred ran it during daylight hours, and he took over as the sun went down. It was therefore the most schizophrenic establishment on earth. If you could get passed the vintage erotica, pulp fiction and “how to” manuals for all sorts of illegal activities, they had the nation’s largest stoic literature section, and it did quite a good trade, too—three or four books a night, on average; some of those lent and, naturally, never returned. Marco called it The Deadwood Perch, because that was what it was: his perch, of dead wood.
He soon discovered that a night-owl bookstore not only attracts frazzled crackheads looking to steal something to exchange for their next hit, but also the forlorn, the bereft, the destitute, the dismayed, the lonely, and the bored. They were an interesting bunch, and—dreadful personal hygiene aside—often full of pleasant surprises.
The potoo waits with its mouth agape; the moths do the rest. That’s the law of the night.
On a personal note, Vanga was one of the few things Malu conceded post-divorce. A licker, not a biter; a roller-over, not a chaser, she was more of a thief-magnet than a deterrent, and was resolutely bullied by the legions of street cats. But she was a stoic herself, in her aging calm, and the only living creature on earth that seemed capable of riling her was Potoo. He did it on purpose, at the cost of quite a few feathers.
He had become a regular visitor to the store, old Potoo; much to Fred’s dismay.
— When you said you’d met a bird, I had imagined something very different, Marco. Very different.
Over the course of this odd semester, his brother’s face had achieved new, deeper, richer shades of red, and his temple veins were more salient than ever. Marco would certainly be the death of poor Fred, if he wasn’t also, and paradoxically, the only reason the man went on living. Someone would have to guide the Stoik through the mire of life.
And the signs? Oh, the signs just kept coming, hot and thick: (un)identified flying and falling objects, burning bushes, deep-ocean fish washing up on the beach, misshapen farm animals with portents in the afterbirth, pandemics, plagues of locusts, fake news, revived bacteria from thawing permafrost, TikTok, summery winters, leaves falling in the spring, farcical tyrants, and a dogged refusal to believe anything except rumor. Yes, the darkness was gathering, and anxiety was reaching previously unscaled heights. The world was in dire need…in need of peace:
Shanti, shanti, shanti