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The Essay
Show #510
El culto de la Pira˝a
David Gunn

The piranha is a voraciously carnivorous fish that likes slow-moving tropical water that has a low pH level and the occasional cow. It does not like to be juggled. Olaf and Rugerboldt, two jesters at the court of Napoleon, found that out the hard way when they tried to incorporate one of the colorful aquatics into their act. The pair had progressed from juggling books to hats to pigeons to, briefly, a very surprised Josephine de Beauharnais. Then Rugerboldt tossed Olaf the piranha. The latter caught it, but before he could flip it back, the annoyed fish latched onto and shortened both his thumb and a promising juggling career. The sanguinary incident chilled all but two of the onlookers at court that day: Joseph Guillotin, who would go on to model a labor-saving executionizer after the fish's powerful jaws; and Oleander III, the Queen of Tulsa.

Oleander was a queen in name only; she wielded no real authority. Her husband, the domineering King Salmon of Hospitalia, wanted no help in ruling the land. However, Oleander belonged to a secret women's emancipation society that comprised scores of the European intelligentsia. The organization had a rudimentary membership database, annual dues, occasional self-help clinics, a secret handshake, regular Wednesday night potluck meetings and, most importantly, an agenda. What they didn't have was a good name. But after observing the incident at Napoleon's court, Oleander resolved that, henceforth, they would be known as el culto de la piraña, the Piranha Cult.

The Cult's agenda was to cut a world full of bossy misogynists down to size, and the piranha was thus a perfect metaphor for the would-be liberationists. The Sewing Circle wing of the Cult stitched together elegant watertight fish costumes, complete with rows of sharp teeth and primitive underwater breathing apparatuses. Members of the Cult's Floozy Unit would lure unsuspecting misanthropes to the banks of the Seine and push them in. Thence the Remediation Team surrounded the quarry, activated their powerful incisorizers, and "recycled" the wayward individuals. Oleander, Acting Subqueen of the Remediation Team, personally filleted King Salmon herself--but not before he accorded her the means to give birth to Sigürflensingdottr.

In Oleander's daughter, the piscine tradition carried on. Sigürflensingdottr, who rose to the office of Grand Dame in the Hospitalia Parliament, brought the Cult into the open by donning her piranha head whenever she addressed the General Assembly. Like those of her Cult's namesake, her jaws were powerful, allowing her to speak at length--sometimes for days at a time.

Speaking of time, it inexorably passed, and Sigürflensingdottr begat Grünhilde who begat Sallamoogra who begat Trampolina who begat Zlornik who begat Ruby Primavera. Yes, that Ruby Primavera, who, like her ancestors, had bright, crimson hair which she wore sharply spiked, a natural inclination to question authority, and an affinity for tropical fish. Yet Ruby was unaware of her ancestors' predisposition towards piranhas until, fresh out of graduate school, she hired on with one of the dot-com giants, Amazon. At least, that was her plan. But before she could peddle her first bed and bath gift certificate, Fate intervened.

Ruby had flagged a cab to take her to a company-sponsored data mining seminar across town. However, the logic-impaired cabdriver misunderstood the address and, four days later, deposited her in a humid backwater of northeastern Brazil--the heart of the Amazon Basin.

At first, Ruby was miffed, of course. She hadn't packed for a tropical rainforest climate and her employer could hardly be expected to reimburse her for this ancillary travel. But soon, the stirrings of ancestral urges took precedence, and she gravitated to the banks of the nearby Rio Oleandro. A cow was placidly drinking from the river when suddenly a fish leapt up, grabbed its nose, and pulled it into the water. Instantly, the surrounding water turned blood red as a piranha feeding frenzy ensued. Within minutes, the cow had been reduced to bones, and Ruby's career path had been permanently altered.

Carefully, she placed six of the fish in the aqua-travelette® she had auspiciously brought along. Then she flagged the same cab and, this time leaving no doubt to her destination by threatening the cabby's ear with one of the fish, headed for home.

A week later, while rooting around in the cupboard for some canned whitebait, Ruby found a musty old journal that Sigürflensingdottr had kept of the Piranha Cult. Ruby was intrigued. Many of the Cult's ideals matched her own, and the costumes' design specifications could be easily duplicated; thus, it wasn't long before Ruby had introduced her ancestors' ology to the twenty-first century.

By day, she maintained a low profile as a senior bed and bath statistical analyst. But at night, she donned her latex fish gear and trolled the dingy streets of the city, looking for misogynistic conspiracies. The Asbestosman Project, while certainly not misogynistic, was conspiratorial. So when Ruby one night noticed a pile of melted--were they Mouseketeers?!--behind the Saint Salmon's Hospital dumpster, she decided further investigation was necessary.

Cracking the fašade of the Hospital's link to the Jehovah's Witness Protection Program proved to be fairly easy; connecting the JWPP to Miss Sebastos' Tai Chi Chuan studio was not much harder. But it was a much bigger jump to deduce why she now found herself in her fish costume along with a dozen normal sized piranha in an aquarium into which were slowly being lowered the Hospital's Dr. Bleiber, his erstwhile charge, Sheila, and a macaque! Ruby had a vague recollection of Miss Sebastos unexpectedly showing up at one of the Wednesday night pot luck meetings with a hot dish that seemed to fade into and out of focus, and everything ever since was a blur. Well, one thing was clear: her little piranha friends were hungry. Already, they'd chewed away her faux dorsal fin and were now sizing up her exposed left buttock.

But then, two things happened to steer the fates of Ruby and, among others, Dr. Bleiber in a new, uncharted direction. First, the macaque's tail brushed the water's surface, and the ravenous fish, sensing a new dinner entrée, immediately lunged for it. Second, Sheila managed to shake the sunglasses off of her face. Ruby had just a moment to see those fearsome eyes glaring at the aquarium before all hell broke loose.

Today's 510th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar is subtitled "Hell Breaking Loose" on account of a special radio art presentation that will consume half of the show. It commences soon after a few introductory remarks, apologia and pre-juggled fish and microchips from Kalvos.