Riding with Euripides by Laura J. Campbell
Graffiti, the Internet told Sarah, was materialillicitly written or drawn on a public wall or surface. It was art, it was crime, it was expression: it was vandalism.
Sarah wondered about that, as she sat on the bus and looked at an intricate unsanctioned work of street art. Vandalism. Such a charged word. The Vandals, from whose name the term derived, had been one of those old-school Germanic barbarian tribes that threatened the ancient Roman Empire. Although formerly perceived as destroyers of Roman culture, the Vandals were now better understood as its progeny. Vandal art, once considered barbarian art, was now displayed as classical art. Right alongside the Roman art. Things had come full circle.
Sarah liked art. She went by herself to the art museum on Thursdays, the day that a large oil company underwrote free admission to the general exhibits. No vandalism had been committed by the large oil company. Sarah thought there was probably some decimated beach out there that would disagree. Illicit oil on coastline.
Sarah had frequently gone to the museum with her mother, in happier times. But her mother died, just over a year ago. Her father… well, he had left her few memories to inspire any reason to contact him ever again. Sarah was alone. It was just her and the art now.
She took solace in riding public transportation and her job; at least she had the opportunity to talk with someone from time to time during the day, without having to interact when she didn’t want to.
She had a peaceful introvert’s heart; it was happy and balanced. Her mind was also happy, but some might consider it plumb off-center. She liked to converse with dead philosophers about what she saw in her world. To let them know how the world was going. Maybe to keep them in the world.
In the evenings, it was just her and the ghosts she invited to share her space. Ghosts, for the most part, turned out to be quiet companions. That was okay. Sarah was still learning the art of quietly being. The ghosts had mastered it.
During her morning commute, Sarah watched the woman across the bus aisle from her. As they passed by a vacant wall on an abandoned building, the woman took a cell phone photograph of the graffiti haphazardly coloring the smog-primed brick canvas. The art was made of splashes of the primary colors—red, blue, and yellow. From the paint that dripped beneath each impact, it appeared as if balloons of paint had been hurled at the wall from an adjacent parking garage, hitting their marks. No painter armed with spray paint, no matter how committed they were to their art, could have placed the bright spots of color directly where they were. Not unless they had twenty-foot arms.
Sarah wasn’t sure what the record for human arm length was. She looked that up on the Internet.
It turned out that her question had no immediately obvious answer. Sarah quickly learned that human arm length was assessed relative to height. She also learned that National Basketball Association stars tended to have longer arms than non-NBA players (a fairly obvious factoid) and that da Vinci’s 5’5” Vitruvian Man possessed ideally symmetrical arms (as if that also wasn’t predictable). Other equally irrelevant facts were instantly available for her discernment.
But her ghost companion for the ride, Euripides, was pleased with her ever-questioning mind.
“Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing,” Euripides whispered to her.
“Good points. You would probably be surprisingly comfortable in the twenty-first century,” she thought to him. “The questions really haven’t changed much over the course of the last 2500 years. We just have so many wrong answers to choose from now. You would be comfortable, but frustrated, I think.”
She looked around her, balancing her conversations with the dead with conversations with the living.
“Why did you take the picture?” Sarah asked the woman who had taken the photograph of the graffiti. Question everything. May as well put Euripides to work. Have him pay some rent for the space he took up in Sarah’s mind.
The woman, fifty-something with bright green eyes, smiled. Her smile reflected her being; desperate energy caught between receding exuberant youth and approaching elegant antiquity. “I am planning on making a wall hanging,” she replied. “Something bright, perhaps with sequins. They’re doing renovation work on that building. Only a matter of time before they paint over the art or knock the wall down. Then it will soon be lost forever.” She half-laughed. “Like me, I guess.”
“How beautiful,” Sarah replied. “Can I see it when you have finished it?”
“Sure,” the woman replied. “Don’t expect too much. I’m an amateur embroiderer for a reason. My thoughts tend to be bigger than my talent.”
Thinking, as a virtue, is becoming lost to Western civilization, Sarah sighed to herself. Knowing facts was one thing but knowing what to do with those facts required learning. Knowing if you should do something with those facts was wisdom. That came from experience.
“I’m sure it will be fabulous,” Sarah encouraged. “In time, your version will be the only version left. You should frame it, for sure.”
Sarah considered asking the woman why she felt the need to memorialize splotches of paint thrown against a dirty city wall, but the truth was that Sarah didn’t want to know. There was something nice about a mystery, something delectably forbidden about not knowing everything.
And it was wonderful to know that a fifty-year-old bus commuter still strived to sparkle, surrounding herself with sequins. Sarah hoped she would still wear glitter when she was older.
“You answered nothing?” The ancient guy from Salamis Island chuckled at Sarah from across two millennia, observing his daughter as she sat in a hard plastic chair and anticipated arrival at her stop.
“A lot of truth can be found in nothingness,” Sarah replied to the ghost.
Sarah watched the woman examining the photographs she had taken of the graffiti. The woman was manipulating the images, cropping the pictures and enhancing colors. She was digitally vandalizing the vandalism.
“The vandal painted something that spoke to the woman, even if she was not the likely audience,” Sarah thought to Euripides. “Recognition is important. It is something.”
Sarah recollected history, as the bus lurched over the potholes that punctured the street like the remnants of hollowed-out stars, forming their erratic constellations in the asphalt. The Romans fell to the Vandals, the Vandals fell to Justinian. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks; the Ottoman Empire fell to Western Europe. Western Europe is still around. For now. What did the vandals say?
There was discontent in the city; there was also happiness. The messages were spray painted on every available canvas. The city would try to erase the negative commentary, remove those expressions that did not support the current empire.
Because street art reflected the message that the Empire didn’t want to see or be seen: That the Empire was replaceable.
Sarah consulted the Internet, trying to find a quote reliably attributable to Gaiseric, King of the Vandals and Alans. She couldn’t find anything.
Sarah had stumbled across something that the Internet did not know!
That was wonderful nothingness.
The woman got off the bus, absorbed in editing her photographs. Euripides fell asleep in his bus seat, just another wearied traveler making a never-ending commute.
Sarah didn’t mind. She could find happiness in nothingness.
The next time Sarah passed the location of the painted wall, it had been torn down. The graffiti was gone.
Except Sarah knew it really had not been totally obliterated.
She had seen a photograph of the finished sequined wall hanging. It was appropriately rough, rendered in garish red, blue, and yellow.
A subversive being cloaked in an outwardly obedient body had carried the infection of the graffiti’s resistance. The statement had been preserved. What it meant relied upon the observer.
“The lady did an end run around the Empire,” Sarah pointed out to Euripides.
“Tell me something I do not know,” he replied. “Neither earth nor ocean produces a creature as savage and monstrous as woman. Empires fall because of them. I’ve seen it happen.”
“You’re just an old sourpuss,” Sarah smiled. “You need to get out more.”
“At least I’m not the one sitting on public transportation talking to a dead guy,” he replied. “You no doubt could use your time better.”
“Maybe I could throw paint balloons filled with bright colors against an abandoned building somewhere?”
“What would you be saying, if you did?”
She hadn’t thought that deeply.
“I’m still here,” she decided. “You have not defeated me yet.”
Are you that bold? It’s not easy being a Vandal, you know. Empires have always had teeth. And Empires have never been afraid to devour their critics.
Is the Empire winning? Again? She asked.
Keep questioning the answers they give you, he advised. The answers anyone gives you. Find out the truth. Even if you don’t like what you learn.
Knowing is one thing, she replied. Should I be doing more?
Knowing is doing. Never underestimate the power of simply knowing.
The bus stopped at her stop and she stepped out onto the sidewalk. She saw a smiley face spray-painted against the curb of the street.
Sarah smiled back.
It didn’t matter what the intent was behind the art; its life now depended on how she treasured it. She chose to embrace it as a happy sign. Placed there, just for her to see.“Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing,” she told the mute smiley face. “Before there is nothing left of you. Before there is nothing left of either of us.”
Laura J. Campbell won the 2007 James B. Baker Award for short story for her science fiction tale, 416175. Over fifty of her short stories have appeared in Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3, Under the Full Moon’s Light, Liquid Imagination, Gods & Services, A Celebration of Storytelling, The Martian Wave, Frost Zone Zine, and other publications. Her two novels, Blue Team One and Five Houses, and a collection of her first short stories (No Lesser Angels, No Greater Devils), are currently available online. Many of Laura’s more recent works are listed on Amazon. When she is not writing, Laura can be found attending rock concerts, weight training, or running. She is encouraged in her writing by her husband, Patrick, and children, Alexander and Samantha.