The Evil That Men Do
Excerpts & Highlights
Sanders has created fairy tales for a new age that are set in today’s fast-paced, cruel world. Unexpected endings are standard fare.
— San Francisco Book Review
Brief (very!) extracts from each of the stories,
with their epigraphs as they appear in the book
It is an old story
But one that can still be told
– The Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2100 BC
Fairy tales, as I take them, are short fables expressing aspects of a people’s folk wisdom that are passed on from generation to generation, eventually finding their way into written form. In this way they are not unlike the foundational “Book” of many religions. Folk tales and myths of disparate peoples embody similar themes and normative proscriptions, suggesting the presence of what Freud called archaic remnants or elements of Jung’s collective unconscious. Such deep structural mythèmes, as Lévi-Strauss would identify them, appear to be common to all humankind, undergirding its ancestral myths and infusing its dreamscapes.
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Reading the Grimm Brothers’ original 1857 versions of early Germanic fairy tales*, one feels cast back into a Hobbesian state of nature where all life is “nasty, brutish and short,” and the world, to quote Tennyson, is “red of tooth and claw.” Many of these stories feature evil characters who behave wickedly for no other reason than it is their nature to be “vile and black of heart,” as Cinderella’s step-sisters are described, a condition of the human soul referred to by Herman Melville as “Natural Depravity.” The wickedness may be ascribed to a feature of the person’s character. Snow White’s evil step-mother is described as being “proud and haughty” and not being able to “bear that anyone else should surpass her in beauty.” This characteristic is offered as sufficient explanation for her ordering Snow White’s cold-blooded murder.
The Three Little Pigs
And the first one now will later be last.
– Bob Dylan
When the triplets arrived, it was quite an event in our little town. ’Course it’s much bigger now, for better or for worse, can’t say. Anyway, I don’t believe there was even that many triplets born in the whole state of Vermont that year. Old Doc O’Brien was mighty proud of himself for predicting they was going to be twins, said he heard two heartbeats a couple months before, but you couldn’t say he weren’t surprised when the third one popped out.
● ● ●
I promised to tell you the story about the Barnes triplets, Willie, Fred and Calvin, but I got to stop here and sidetrack a little and tell you about a certain Mr. Vuk Dracović. He had his named changed to Dracovich so we would all know the right way to say it like how they did back where he come from.
Now this Mr. Vuk Dracović or Dracovich just showed up one day, a while before the boys was born. He just drove into town in this old dark-brown Cadillac, must have been at least ten years old, and moved into our hotel. We only got one hotel, more like a boarding house, at least back then we did. Now we got a couple of them motels just outside of town on the new highway they built, right next to the new movie theater.
● ● ●
Cal said nothing.
“And you probably even believe that you’re so tough. Let me tell you a story about being tough, Sheriff. When I was ten years old, my uncle ran our town with an iron fist. Everyone in town feared him. That’s right, feared him. And then one day, his bloody head was stuck up on a pole right in front of his house. No matter how tough you think you are, there’s always somebody who’s not afraid of you, somebody who’s tougher and smarter. You Americans, you’re all so soft and weak. It must be in your blood, but that’s not what’s in my blood. Where I come from, Sheriff, you grew up surrounded by death. You know what my name means? In my country a vuk is a wolf, and here you and your brothers are, like trapped pigs waiting to be roasted.”
Cal said nothing.
“This is over, Sheriff. And in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t just joking about being roasted. I’m going to blow out the pilot on your stove, turn on the gas and light some candles in the kitchen. A real tragedy, your family’s whole future wiped out just like that. And don’t worry, the state police won’t do too much investigating. I have important friends in there who won’t let them. Your brother’s paid them enough of my money.”
Cal’s expression didn’t change.
“What’s the matter, Sheriff,” he taunted. “Nothing to say? You expect the cavalry to come charging in here to save you?”
But the room remained silent as a breeze seemed to rustle the drapes on the front window.
“You know, Sheriff, Mr. Goldman tells me you don’t play chess. You should have learned. It teaches you how to think. In chess you always have to think several steps ahead of your opponent. Several steps ahead,” Dracović laughed.
And Cal said “Now, Guyen.”
A ghost-like figure slipped silently from behind the window drapes and drew a carbon steel knife across the laughing man’s throat.
Little Red Riding Hood
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
– Hannah Arendt
“Don’t even worry about it, honey. Let’s just get you to my phone so you can get out of here. It’s already pretty late.”
Camila pulled the Fiat around the immobilized vehicle. As they moved away into the darkness, the deserted car looked like a distress buoy flashing for help on a black ocean.
Camila glanced over at her passenger and noticed her knee-high boots made out of the same glossy black material as her coat. She couldn’t tell if it was leather or plastic. “You must be cold,” she said. “Here, let me turn on some heat. I usually keep it cold in here to help me stay awake.”
● ● ●
The room was large with a red deep‑pile carpet. Against the middle of one wall was a king-size bed, its covers turned down. There was a night table next to the bed with an exotic looking bottle of liqueur and two crystal glasses. Carmen stepped out of her shoes and kissed Camila on her cheek, making it burn. She no longer seemed to be that much taller. She poured two drinks, gave one to Camila and touched glasses. They both imbibed the thick amber liquid.
● ● ●
Camila’s bed, this time a large four-poster, was also turned down. Camila said, “Wait here, I’ll be right back. I need to get ready.” When she was gone, Carmen stripped off the business suit she had been wearing when they first met. She now wore only a small white lace bra and panties. Looking around the room, she spotted a Gucci gift box on the dresser; it had her name on it. Making sure Camila didn’t see, she slid it into her bag.
Camila returned. White Camellias fragrance was sprayed over her shoulders and neck, and her lips had a thick coat of the same dark red lipstick that Carmen had worn the night before. She stood before Carmen, anxious to be admired in a filmy red camisole that just barely reached her thighs. Camila noticed that Carmen’s gold cross was missing, but it failed to signify anything to her.
Hansel and Gretel
Man is the cruelest animal.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
The large man, at least to the young boy he was large, asked, “Do you know what a penis is?”
● ● ●
Upon their arrival at the cottage, the children were still asleep from the chloroform. He locked them in the storage closet and went for dinner. He found it best to let a child exhaust himself physically and emotionally and miss a few meals before trying to entice him into the ritual.
Sylvester did not feel that he was homosexual. His preference for boys was purely empirical. Prepubescent girls just didn’t seem able to respond as he needed, and he was too unfamiliar with how they worked to understand why.
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“Do you know what a penis is?” He had delivered this opening line so many times, he couldn’t even remember how often. But rather than the rush of rising excitement he usually experienced, Sylvester felt embarrassed as soon as the words tumbled out, the phrase bilious in his mouth.
Never before in all the many rituals he’d performed had this happened to him. Rather than commencing the well-practiced process of bartering the aromatic food for a hungry child’s favors, he dissolved into utter confusion, and instead pushed the food back across the table. “Eat. Your Uncle Sly wants you to eat.”
● ● ●
The front door was not locked. Peter retrieved a handful of snow and brought it into the closet to help wake his sister. It seemed to be taking forever, and he kept on whispering, “We’re going home, we’re going home,” close to her ear.
Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex.
– Mahatma Gandhi
“Please Daddy! Please don’t make me. I can’t.”
“You can and you will. And if I hear you don’t do every fucking thing he tells you, you can move out and kiss that fancy school of yours goodbye. You got a goddam body. Now go down there and use it. I ain’t gonna see Tiny flush my whole fucking business down the toilet just cause you can’t do it,” he said mockingly.
Jane jumped up from the table, knocking her chair to the floor, ran to her room and slammed the door. But the fury of her indignation was no match for her sense of reality, and soon she was burning with shame in the certain knowledge that in a few hours she would be made to display herself half naked in front of dozens of sweating, drunken pawing men. The last words her father screamed after her reverberated in her ears: “And if Tiny says dance, you dance. You dance like you fucking mean it!”
The Meat Market sat at the end of a dark block of old brick factories and warehouses.
The warm nighttime summer’s air felt almost too thick to breathe, yet Jane was shaking with cold fear. She approached the bar’s entrance in an almost fugue-like state, broken glass crunching under her feet. Small clusters of bearded men and muscular women in leather vests sat on fat motorcycles drinking beer from long-necked amber bottles. A flickering neon sign blinked “The Meat Market” in bleary yellow letters on the large front window that had been obscured with red paint. Her feet moved like lead, and she felt the dull thump of the electric bass thrum in her body even before she could hear the shrill screech of the amplifiers.
● ● ●
Jane realized that the friendly surfer-bartender, or whatever he was, had told her all she needed to know about the way the Meat Market’s cash was generated, monitored and flowed. That meant she did not have to return that night. The cash came in, got recorded in detail and was hand-delivered to Tiny. Whatever else there was to find out for Mr. Cohen must be hidden somewhere inside the red silk-walled office.
● ● ●
“You won’t believe what I found,” Jane blurted out exuberantly before she was even fully seated. “You were right! Tiny’s been stealing from you just like you thought.”
At this, Michael Cohen, who had seemed rather sullen, brightened up slightly. “Really? You found something?” he asked.
“Here, let me show you,” Jane said, trying to act professional. She got up, walked around the desk, opened the bottom desk drawer and withdrew the top ledger. She placed it on the desk, opening it to the first page. Then she took out the folded photocopies from her pants pocket and smoothed out the copy of the hidden ledger’s first page with her hand.
● ● ●
“Count it out,” said Tiny’s voice.
“Count it yourself, Fatso. We’re partners now, so how about a little trust?”
“Yeah, you and me partners,” replied Tiny with a deep laugh, and the picture disappeared as Cohen pushed the eject button.
He turned to Jane. “Is this the only one?” His voice was sharp, penetrating, unlike anytime Jane had heard it.
“The only what?”
“The only tape. Was there anything else, another copy? Is there another copy?” he demanded.
“No, no, nothing else I saw. I guess it’s the only one. I mean why else would he hide it inside the toilet like that?”
“Yes. I suppose you’re right.”
Suddenly Cohen’s demeanor changed back into his usual friendly self. “You’ve been phenomenal Jane. I was really worried that you wouldn’t be able do it, but I was wrong. Now let’s see what that fat bastard thinks he can do!”
He put the tape back in its container and slipped it into his suit-coat pocket. He stood and looked at Jane for a moment, then, as if remembering something, said, “Oh yes, and here’s your payment. I know it’s what you’ve really wanted all along.”
As Jane, still confused by what see had just seen, put out her hand. . .
All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.
As you know, my sister will be holding a press conference on Friday, along with her attorney Saul Edelman. She’s asked me to brief you beforehand on some background since she wants to use her time to cover as many details as possible about the events of the past ten years. Now I realize that being brief is not my forte, given the ungodly length of my novels. So I’m going to try to follow Winston Churchill’s advice about a good speech being like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to make it interesting. And if I don’t, there’s plenty of coffee in back.
● ● ●
I received a postcard from Paris the next week. Janet seemed to have forgotten all about her unconventional engagement party. She loved the City of Lights and was excited about going on to Vienna and Zurich. They had left JFK on the ninth and were returning on the twenty-third. The card was dated the tenth, so she hadn’t known about the September 11th attacks when she mailed it.
● ● ●
It was five years later and a full ten years after Jacob Bleich’s initial disappearance before anything else happened. By that time, Janet had had two children and been recognized as one of the foremost OB/GYN practitioners in New York. La Court Associates now had ten doctors, four of them women. I had completed four novels, and one of them had been on the short list for a minor literary prize. Yet all this time Jake remained silently within us, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, imploring us for help.
And then one morning my telephone rang at 3:00 AM. It was Saul Edelman, and he was wide awake. He had just gotten off the phone with General Bachner in Guantanamo, who had just gotten off the phone with the CIA chief of station in Yemen. I couldn’t believe it, but he actually said to me and I quote: “They went and cut his fucking balls off.”
● ● ●
The only thing it was purported to have said was that Jacob Bleich had changed his name from Yakov Hallil after having been seriously injured in some kind of bombing incident in Iraq. This and the fact that Belgium, a trusted NATO ally, had reliable intelligence that the original Yakov Hallil, a Jew, had been murdered and switched for an Arab terrorist by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Belgium. Switched for a terrorist. The Muslim Brotherhood. With these words echoing in her memory and slamming into her gut like a wrecking ball, my sister’s face turned deathly white, then bright red.
A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker than a germ.
– John Steinbeck
“So let me understand,” said the lawyer. “You want me to tell you if you have anything to worry about concerning the inquest, is that right?”
“Exactly,” replied La Court. “I’ve never been involved in this sort of thing before, and I just want to be sure.”
Dusk was settling in, and the streetlights had just come on. The two men were alone, all the staff having left for the day. Dr. Gabriel La Court had asked an attorney acquaintance to stop by the Park Avenue office where he had been practicing obstetrics for more than three decades.
● ● ●
“Anyway, that’s how I met Becca. We got her information from the first hospital’s admission sheet. It gave her name as Becca Rodriguez. Her husband was listed as US Army Private Richard Rodriguez from Nebraska, but he was stationed over in Korea at the time. She apparently didn’t give them any information about how to get hold of her parents. Of course, what she told them turned out not to be true, although I didn’t find this out until later when I...”
“Hold it right there,” exclaimed the lawyer. “Don’t say another word.”
La Court was so startled by the lawyer’s outburst that he stopped, his mouth half opened.
“Give me a dollar,” said the lawyer.
“I said give me a dollar, right now.”
La Court took out his wallet. “The smallest I have is a ten.”
“Then give it to me.”
After taking the ten-dollar bill, the lawyer said, “Somehow I’m beginning to get the feeling that you’re going to tell me something that I shouldn’t hear outside of attorney-client privilege. Consider this ten as a partial retainer, just in case I hear something that might be unhelpful to you, if you know what I mean. I have no idea of what you’re going to say, but considering how the newspapers said this case ended up, I think we ought to get that straight before we continue.”
● ● ●
“It wasn’t until two or three days later that our records department discovered they didn’t have any information about her or her parents whatsoever, no address or telephone or social security number. They tried contacting the Army to track down her husband, but it turned out that Private Richard Rodriguez didn’t exist; there was no record of anyone by that name in Korea at that time, and they had no Richard Rodriquez from Nebraska nor one married to a woman named Becca or Rebecca. Our billing department got involved, but they couldn’t track her down from a national database either. They even checked with the state police to see if someone fitting her description was a runaway or wanted for a crime, but they also came up empty. It wasn’t until I saw her six years later, in this very office, that I even learned her real name was Becca Thune.”
Jack and the Beanstalk
Despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
– Anne Frank
Jack was a gawky-looking teen with spiky bleached hair on top and a naturally brown buzz cut along the sides of his head. He had no sideburns below the top of his ears which were decorated with modest gold-colored cubical stud earrings. His unbleached eyebrows rested above incurious grey eyes. On the day of this story, Jack was wearing a faded Black Sabbath tee shirt, frayed cut-off jeans, new burgundy sneakers and a necklace of strung seashells.
● ● ●
About three car-lengths down the cross street he noticed what appeared to be a well-dressed man lying on the ground being kicked and beaten by two larger men, one with a wooden baseball bat and the other with a length of metal pipe.
Jack stopped his board and without thinking yelled, “Hey!” The setting sun was behind his back and in the attackers’ eyes. They stared at him for several seconds trying to make out who he was, then dropped their clubs, jumped into a maroon Mercedes parked at the curb and peeled away, leaving black stripes on the street.
Out of curiosity, Jack coasted up to the man lying on the ground and asked, “Are you okay, mister?”
The man who had been watching Jack as he approached said in a gravelly voice, “Does it look like I’m okay, kid?”
Jack just stood there looking at him dumbly for a moment, then said, “No, I guess not. Like do you want me to do something?”
“Yeah, kid. I want you to do something. Those guys hurt me real bad. I need something for the pain. I got some coke in my shirt pocket. Just pull it out and hold it open for me.”
Jack looked down, an uncomprehending look on his face. “Coke?” he asked. “Like a can of Coke?”
“What’s wrong with you, kid? Just get me the stuff in my shirt. It’s medicine, pain medicine like aspirin. Open it up and hold in under my nose.”
● ● ●
Jack’s heart contracted violently. The only thing in the room was a table upon which rested a mahogany coffin. “Come on, get inside,” the man who looked like Mr. Smith said as he took the suitcase from the driver.
Jack was paralyzed in surprise, terror and utter confusion. “I thought I was going on an airplane.”
“Just get inside. It’s necessary. Mr. Rubenstein said so.”
“But he didn’t say nothing about no coffin,” Jack stammered.
“Listen, we don’t have a lot of time. Either you’re doing this thing or you ain’t, so just get inside and I’ll fix you up.”
Not even knowing why, Jack obeyed and lay down in the coffin, his hands visibly trembling. The man placed the suitcase at Jack’s feet and an oxygen tank beside him. Plastic tubing connected the tank to an oxygen mask, which the man placed over Jack’s nose and mouth and tightened with an elastic strap behind his head. “You’re gonna be traveling in the luggage compartment, and there ain’t no air once you get up there,” he said pointing his index finger in an upward direction.
The evil that men do lives after them;the good is oft interred with their bones.
– William Shakespeare
For centuries philosophers have argued about the source of human knowledge. Some claim that all thought is constructed by recombining information about the world perceived through the five senses, while others have insisted that true knowledge can only originate by reasoning from certain innate ideas common to all mankind. These grand philosophical schemes were expounded to describe the mind of Man. However, there are rare actual men and women living amongst us, the intuitives, who have an altogether different access to knowledge through ideas that inexplicably enter their mind unsummoned in a sudden burst or flash, as it were, fully formed like the fabled birth of Athena from Zeus’ head. Mary Ma, Chief of Surgery at Madison Hospital in New York, was one such person.
Looking back, Mary could not say when she first became aware of possessing this power, which manifested itself to her as the ability to always make the right choice.
● ● ●
But something quite unexpected happened soon after Mary Ma came to Madison. The cases in which she assisted when no regular staff surgeon would serve suddenly started doing better, with shorter operating times and fewer post-operative complications. During surgery itself, the more challenged primary surgeons would gratefully follow her kind, non-intimidating yet authoritative suggestions. Afterwards, the nurses came to rely on her for salutary post-operative care decisions. Within several months, even some of the better staff surgeons began requesting her to assist them and happily turned their post-operative responsibilities over to her at night. Predictably, this caused some inter-staff tensions as many of the second-tier surgeons depended upon their assistant fees. While the mediocre ones grumbled, the better surgeons were actually relieved for the support, since they could spend more of their time with their own private patients.
● ● ●
After reviewing the facts of the matter, Mary Ma came to believe that the presence of Augusta Wight at Madison was the proximate cause of her ebbing power and decided that she had to be expunged. She spent several days examining different scenarios and settled on succinylcholine, a drug that paralyzes the body’s muscles, including those necessary for breathing. It was readily available in the operating rooms, being used routinely by anesthesiologists during surgery, and it was nearly impossible to detect after death.