The 1st Book of Gluten
For I command all men that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written, I will judge the world
2 Nephi 29:11
In the beginning, there was nothing. Trust me on this — it’s absolutely essential that we trust each other here — but in the beginning? Nothing.
Then, something roiled the deep transparent nothing. It wasn’t really nothing, I guess. Just everything in one place. But that one place? It got roiled up something good. Now, whether we call this prime roiler the breath of God, the rosy fingerings of the Logos, or an inevitable bubble in the quantum foam, it doesn’t really matter. The words don’t really matter. What matters is the matter. Get it? It’s absolutely essential that you get it.
Anyway, so all this matter — stuff of creation, or dust, if you prefer — it gets sneezed out across the deep transparent nothing. And once the mucus dried, the dust crusted into planets, and the sinus fluid evaporated into stars.
For a bunch of years, everything was quiet, just cosmic boogers toasting beneath hoary heat-lamps. No noise but the slick hum of the burning death and nervous rebirth of heat-lamps into boogers into heat-lamps, all dancing toward maximum entropy and tabula rasa, the end of the tour. Nothing clawed back to nothing, kaput. The end.
But that’s not the end. Not yet, anyway, because whoever or whomever or whatever loaded the agar into the cosmic incubator of the deep transparent nothing didn’t practice very good lab hygiene. A virus got in.
You see, nestled inside one of the boogers crusted over in an unremarkable corner of the deep transparent nothing was a little fragment of DNA. This wayward strand encoded a protein unremarkable but for its aspirations to disrupt the whole plan of the universe. That little-protein-that-could would later come to be called — of course — gluten. But we’ll return to the naming of things soon. What’s important for now is that pernicious little protein laid dormant for many years — millions, even — before making the first mutation towards ascendancy.
In the intervening eons, many things happened on the infected planet, most of them not very interesting. Every eon or two, the prime roiler would do its thing and pull the plunger in the primordial bathtub. Up from crust would come a whirlpool, a bit of structure accreted randomly in the back-and-forth love-affair between the heat-lamps and their boogers. Sometimes, the whirlpool tugged glaciers across plains and spat rain on deserts, carving Grand Whirlpools in their wake. And sometimes, the whirlpools got crafty. Some little atoms would stick together more often than other little atoms. These little atoms would find other little atoms they liked, and bubbles would form.
These bubbles would proceed to eat other bubbles and use the devoured remains of their vanquished foes to cobble together formidable bubble fortresses from which to coordinate the rape and plunder of their fellow multi-bubbled organisms. Lather, rinse, and repeat for a few hundred years, tweaking the formula a little bit each time — none of us is perfect — and soon enough, you get a Tyrannosaurus whirlpool or a North American brown whirlpool. When the bubbles got too big or the prime roiler got bored, they’d pop and wipe the slate clean, leaving behind a soapy film of residual life. Eventually, a heat-lamp would get frisky, and the boogers would birth another food chain. Yin, yang, pop.
After a few eras passed, six or seven I think, a very special bubble rose to the top of the cosmic melting pot, splitting in twain before it reached the surface. These very special bubbles were your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, living in between two rivers somewhere. Unlike the bubbles which burped them, these precocious runts possessed the unremarkable gifts of vocal cords and thumbs. Although these bubbles could run, play, and hunt only as well as their forebears, their genome harbored a remarkable curse: these great progenitors were born susceptible to the infectious protein. Gluten had its in.
At once the viral DNA set to its nefarious project. Riding in the wake of the prime roiler, the strand collided into bubbles and hijacked their facsimile machines. The virus plunged into the genome of an unremarkable grain sprouting in between two rivers somewhere, and the trap was lain. The fruit of that plant now bore the wretched protein.
Meanwhile, the two ancestor bubbles scurried about the land in between the two rivers. They had bubbled forth from the loins of their parent and leapt from jungle to glacier, spearing lesser bubbles and feasting on their fatty flesh. In those days, things were pretty good. Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, so the pre-lingual grunts against the merciless plod of the prime roiler were confined in audience to those other members of the immediate super bubble. Because neither poetry nor cologne had yet been discovered, the population remained limited despite abundance of lesser bubbles to spear. But never did these noble bubbles dispense with their savage nature: uppity dust must be crushed, and no bubble is too big to pop. Still all was swell in the world, and all was quiet, but for the plaintive hum of a planet wandering back to nothing.
Except for your great-grand bubbles. These two insisted instead on running madly about the land between the two rivers, pointing at the myriad bubbles they found and articulating labels for each with their superior vocal cords. This shameless display of difference made the pair very unpopular in their peer group. Each responded to the harshness of alienation in their own way. While your great-grand bubble took up extreme fitness in a desperate bid to regain a sense of control over their self-esteem, your great-grand bubble preferred to soothe their nerves with long walks through the yet unspoiled woodlands.
Every day, the two left the family cave in the morning and parted ways to leisure, meeting in the afternoon to picnic. Normally, your great-grand bubbles would take turns bringing shanks of hunted bubbles, but after a confusing holiday weekend, the pair met midday and discovered neither had brought lunch. Rather than grunting angrily and gnashing their reduced incisors as their parents might have done to resolve the matter, they instead spoke in measured grunts the labels for each object in their universe they could eat. Quickly, the exchange turned into a friendly competition, and the two began hastily searching the nearby area to find new edible things to label.
One of your great-grand bubbles — which, I cannot remember — scaled a hill and found there on the crest a single sprout. Its central cylinder was circumscribed at the top by a clutch of weakly cohered bubbles, and it seemed to wave seductively as the prime roiler whistled past on the wind. As bubbles are wont to do in such situations, your great-grand bubble didn’t consider the mortal consequences of the affair. Instead, they thought with their gut, rumbly from the missed meal, and pounced upon the yet unnamed grain. Although no toxin hid in the fruits of this crop, something much worse did: the accursed gluten. This protein clutched falsely onto others more nutritionally generous, and it entered your great-grand bubble, before hastily diffusing into their brain. Your great-grand bubble recoiled from a great psychic change, staggering down the hill with palms over eyes.
Your other great-grand bubble was at the time wading knee-deep through the waters of a pond at the bottom of the hill, searching still for a novel bubble to eat and name. When they saw their companion struggling in their direction, they shrieked, breaking the glutinous haze. Your great-grand bubble opened their eyes and on the surface of the blooming waters saw, for the first time, his reflection. He opened his mouth, and his specter on the surface did the same. He stood on one leg, and his specter obeyed. Growing inured with the obedience, he began to rub his belly, but before the waters could comply, ripples distorted his form. Your other great-grand bubble, confused by his non-labeling-behavior, had slapped the surface with the palm of their hand. In this other, he saw one who was different, one who looked enough alike himself but whose actions did not comport to his impulses. This observation startled him, and he became self-conscious. Was the sprout actually edible? He now had his doubts and needed the reassurance of his companion.
He beckoned to your other great-grand bubble with a gesture pointed up the incline, and the two ascended the hill. Finding a stalk nearby his first, he plucked it from the ground and rolled it between his hands. Extending a palmful of grains to his partner, he grunted first querulously and then reassuringly, as your other great-grand bubble nervously considered the choice. Should they reject the crop, they would forsake forever psychic intimacy with the one from whom they separated. But to consume it would surely be to admit defeat in the competition. Your great grand-bubble closed their eyes and cupped their hands over their brow for a moment before decision won out, and they lapped up the grain. The pair returned the pond, and your great grand-bubble stood on its shore, gaping at her own reflection, while her partner frenzied to fashion two thongs from the available foliage. Thus aware of himself and hers, he was frightened by their mutual nudity.
When next the council of the loudest grunters converged around the campfire to parliament, much ado was made of the case of the bubble-cleaved lovers. They’d wandered into town, running adverbs into gerunds with their glutinously gilded tongues, their thongs reeking of the sweet sweat of mirrored perfectability. By now, the two had exchanged names: Chet and Mandy, pronounceable on only their vocal instruments. This exclusivity infuriated the community. The representative of one faction pointed to his skull with one hand while pounding a stone against the ground with the other, grunting angrily to reinforce the nuances of his position. But a wizened grunter rose in opposition, shaking his head mournfully with a deep coo. He pointed to the horizon, and a plurality of the council of the loudest grunters nodded and grunted affirmatively. Their dust was uppity indeed, but it’d be up to the prime roiler to do the crushing.
And so Chet and Mindy, expelled from the land in between two rivers, were forced to book it from the family cave and lease their own place away from the grunters. As domesticity typically tends, the two quickly became parents. This was a decidedly good move: by dilating the super-bubble in a coital frenzy of irrational exuberance, economies of scale are induced and all bubbles are made to prosper.
The two newcomers took the labels of Rick and Randy and each assumed a vocation befitting his neuroses in the primeval rat race. While the well-restrained Rick derived pleasure from the simple rituals of agrarian life, the more liberated Randy sought instead the thrills of shepherdry. When the two brothers came of age and graduated from homeschool, Mindy, ever the overbearing matriarch, had hoped they’d share a cozy place on the sapiens side of town. But, by then, the rift between their tempers had grown too social. The brothers split, and Rick and Randy set out to slum it separately with the grunters.
Equipped with superior vocal cords and disabled by glutinous delirium, the two were natural politicians and attracted followers among the grunters. As their bands swelled, their neuroses became enshrined in the institutions they enforced, and the differences between their ways of life grew acute. While the Rickists tilled the soil according to assiduously attended calendars, the Randytes preferred to wander wherever the prime roiler led, tending to their herds in stride.
Although the Rickists were by occupation an uptight bunch, their spreadsheets served the substrate for a bean-counting class to arise and direct population growth. By contrast, the laid-back Randytes let-do, and the people, though fewer, were happier for it, frequently hosting in their caravans adulatory drum-circle sessions in the name of their leader.
These displays of fidelity infuriated Rick. His followers — it’s true — were far too serious for pageantry, far too dedicated to their labors to lark about and thread flowers through strangers’ hair. But these outbursts of unburdened spirit weighed on the Rickist recruitment efforts: their fact-and-figured-leaden pamphlets failed to excite anything close to the grunting lines wrapped around the Randyte camp every night.
Day and night Rick self-consciously suffered the pangs of his unpopularity as self-doubt clamped its jaws on his psyche. What was the point of it all — the early rising, the careful budgeting of hours and grain, the grinding inhumanity of the complex social institutions necessary to mobilize the swollen numbers of Rickists — if a gluten-based diet could fundamentally never compete in satiety with one rich in protein? Was comfortable misery really all there was to the lot of socialized man? Why did everything always seem to be so easy for Randy?
The last question weighed especially heavily on Rick’s soul, and what had been kindled as playful animosity between two brothers attempting to furnish a morally superior civilization now boiled over and took a darker aspect. His heart was hardened by wrath, and he determined to set right what he believed the prime roiler had perturbed. Directing his followers to intensify production and fill the granaries with enough surplus crops to sustain a professional warrior class, Rick set about the enactment of his revenge.
He divided labor between proletarian specialists and assigned each a station in the military industrial complex. Ores were pillaged from the earth and smithed into swords, and the creatives were deployed to bring the public to foaming frenzy through composition of dirty jokes and sculpture of popular pottery. Heralding a noble, plagiarized past of escalating prosperity and equality, the culture industry shrieked that all progress risked reversal from the mannerless incivility of the shepherds, that their uncouth blue-collar resistance to glutinous authority ought be stamped out to preserve the spirit of the Rickist cause.
Soon, the public came to agree that the backward Randytes needed to be brought to heel, and that it was the duty of the enlightened, city-slicking Rickists to liberate those suffering the doleful drudgeries of their own freedom. Having both then the necessary technocratic means and the popular motivation for corrective action, Rick ordered his tribe to war. And like so much fodder beneath the grinding wheel of history, the Randytes were brutally crushed.
Although the Randytes were, as individual grunters, better fed, stronger, and more attuned spiritually to the fantastic spectacle of human life, the Rickists countered with greater numbers, better instruments of war, and a savagery so brutal so as can only be cultivated on the mean streets of the city. The shepherding hippies put up scant resistance before the jackbooted forces of progress, and by nightfall many conga drums lain punctured and strewn between the sheepskin tents of the Randyte camps. Those who did not flee were captured and summarily executed, and those who managed escape left behind their life-savings in cattle pens.
Rick strolled through the battlefield, stepping over the bodies of the fallen and tabulating their booty, and came upon the mangled corpse of his brother. His knuckles were bruised and torn raw, and a wedge-shaped space of missing flesh marked the spot on his skull where a Rickist wielding a bronze axe had dealt the final blow. Staring into his brother’s protruded, vacant eyes, Rick felt, for a moment, mournful recognition, before he collapsed to his knees, weeping angrily and gnashing his teeth. Thus aware of himself and his brother’s, he was disgusted by their mutual mortality.
Rick’s despair was quickly subsumed into excess, and the triumphant grunters could hardly restrain their lewdest impulses as they roasted the captured flock and gorged on its toasted flesh. In their protein-delirium, none could foresee the disastrous consequences of their orgiastic battle. Soon after the victorious conquerers returned to the Rickist cities, expecting further thanksgiving of cornucopic proportions, they were confronted by the products of their adventurism. The social pressure among the farming-class to produce higher and higher yields of grain to support their boys on the battlefield galvanized an agronomic ethic of the here-and-now, and the soil had been exhausted. Many in the tribe now suffered the pangs of hunger, and for what? His brother’s end brought Rick no psychic peace, and he too bore the scars shared by the emotionally shattered warrior-class.
After growling out some scathing doggerel against the blind justice of the primer roiler, Rick resigned to admit reform of his broken people. For one, murder was forbade. So ruinous the path of legitimated violence was determined, the Rickists swore only to return violence against violence, and only then with seven times the magnitude. Harvest after harvest of declining yields of wheat convinced Rick that the land around his band’s city now spurned its gluttonous, glutinous tillers, and he persuaded the bean-counters that better pastures laid elsewhere. Packing up all their comforts of life and bureaucracy, the Rickists ruefully prepared to migrate.
Falling prey in that moment to a passing air of sentimentality, Rick decided to pay a final visit to his parents, Chet and Mindy, before leaving the place of his birth. Arriving at the threshold of his parents’ cave with a bottle of domestic cabsav cradled between his elbow and bicep, Rick paused before knocking.
Through the flimsy door, fashioned from twined-together tree bark, he heard his mother cooing over a baby’s gurgling senselessness and his father’s laughing. They too had sought reform in the despair of loss, and a grin erupted on Rick’s face as his father rose to answer his prodigal knocking. Over the shoulder of his shouting father, he locked eyes with his infant brother and was stunned by that same fatal recognition.
His mother squirmed to hastily break the bonding synchrony, tossing her shawl over the baby and turning her back to the door. By then, the trauma had been dealt. In forsaking brotherhood, Rick had relinquished all claim to family, and he turned his back on his hoarse father and stepped away from his parents’ cave. He committed that day to accept the suffering inherent in existence and dally no further with the constraining cultural constructs of tradition and basic human goodness. Returning to helm his tribe’s exile to the wretched wastes, Rick doled out berets and sold his grunting followers on the virtues of godless capitalism. In embrace of the absurdity of their primeval existence, the Rickists upped the ante on violence to seventy-seven fold and charged into the antediluvian unknown, finding arable soil and settling in the land to the east of the land in between two rivers.
In the following decades, many things happened, some of them interesting. Reflecting on her mistakes in the rearing of Rick and Randy, Mindy took a restrained tack in parenting her third child, attributed the label Seamus, hoping to emphasize a productive balance between the fruits of the earth and of the flock. Seamus grew fruitfully and inherited his father’s fatherly chin line, proving to be quite a success with the ladies. He had a kid, and then a grandkid, and then a people. Still, he never forgot the mythic violence with which his mother explained away his brothers’ absence, and the mystery of mortality plagued his fading mind.
His distraction by the shadows cast by the increasingly grooved wrinkles on his face was broken only by the passing of Chet. By the time Seamus made it to the dialysis wing of the regional hospice facility, Mindy’s face was already buried in his father’s lifeless mitts, her tears leaking rivulets over his jaundiced, papery skin. Seamus stood outside Chet’s room, frozen for a full five minutes before Mindy’s sobs grew audible and he blinked back to consciousness.
There, elevated on the hospital bed, laid his father, the corpse’s eyes open to the horror it wrought. Beside the hand-railed bed, his mother, grasping onto the hard plastic of its machinery, struggled to find an anchor in the new reality the prime roiler had dealt. Seamus stepped away from the room, disgusted, and fled home to his own compound.