“The Louse” – Fiction by Ian Kappos

Portrait of a Philosopher – Lyubov Popova, 1915

A philosopher encounters a metaphysical parasite in “The Louse,” Ian Kappos‘ bitingly bizarre flash fiction from our Winter 2018 issue.

{ X }


He discovered it during an attempt to see into the future. He had been sitting on the edge of his mattress, looking into his scrying mirror, when something caught his eye that quite literally made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. In the light spilling through his window, it was unmistakable: tracing a wild path through his thinning hair, like a confused grain of brown rice, was a louse. A godforsaken louse.

In a burst of panic, the philosopher jumped up and looked around his studio apartment for something with which to deport the louse: a spear, a hammer, a solvent of some sort. A sealant or maybe helmet that he could affix to his head in order to suffocate the thing. But he found nothing. As luck would have it, he had traded most of his belongings at the pawn shop in exchange for the scrying mirror. He admonished himself for his lack of foresight. He leaned out the window, curled his fingers into a fist, and thrust the fist up at the sky.

He stared directly into the sun, as if trying to burn the memory of the louse from his retinas.

Wait, the philosopher thought. That’s it.

He grabbed the scrying mirror, poked his head again out the window, looked up at the sun with suspicion, then drew his head back inside and inspected the scrying mirror.

He would not have long.

Due to nonpayment, the electricity had been turned off, leaving the philosopher no choice but to make do with the resources at his disposal. But he would do it, he vowed, and fell quickly into work.

The philosopher reviewed what he knew about classical electrodynamics. He studied the scrying mirror, turning it over in his hand, examining it from all angles.

f = pE + J x B

He racked his brain. He racked his scalp. After several minutes of fervent racking, the philosopher concluded that if he used the Poynting vector as his basis for directional flow of energy, the surface area of the mirror (“B”) should concentrate and redirect a sufficient enough charge distribution (“p” being the density of the charge and “E” being the speed of light) for his purposes.

In other words: it should concentrate and redirect a sufficient enough charge distribution to blow the little bastard to smithereens.

He scrutinized his reflection in the mirror, sifted a hand through the sweaty tassel of hair on his head until finally, with a tiny yelp of victory, he located the louse, and, feeling his way over to the windowsill, lined it up in the crosshairs of the mirror.

Almost immediately he felt the handle of the mirror grow hot with the concentration of electrical energy transmitted from the sun. But just as he was beginning to feel triumphant, the heat of the handle rose to an uncomfortable level. When it got so hot that it started to burn his fingers, he bit his lip and blinked through his tears, determined to keep the louse in his sights.

The philosopher’s head erupted in fire. He ran screaming around his apartment, overturning everything in his path, running to the faucet and finding that the water had been turned off, too. He dove headlong into his mattress, driving his skull beneath a pillow, and rolled around there until the fire was out.

He rose from the blackened sheets, venturing to feel, hesitantly, that he had won.

When he turned around, there was the louse, standing over him. It was now at least twice his own size. The philosopher sank back into the mattress.

“Please don’t eat me,” said the philosopher.

The louse stared.

It occurred to the philosopher that the philosopher was going to die. Now, he realized all at once, tears springing to his eyes, he’ll never know what the future holds.

“Are you going to eat me?” he asked.

The louse stared. Perhaps, thought the philosopher, feeling a kindling of hope, he could find a way out of this. Yes, he thought, confidence building: he was, after all, a philosopher, was he not?

“Louse,” said the philosopher, in his most philosophical tone, “will you choose to eat me?”

“Do I have an alternative?” said the louse.

The philosopher jumped.

“In some schools of thought,” the philosopher went on, trying to maintain his calm, “particularly in indeterminism, the concept of ‘choice’ is called into question. Most tend to believe that, if anything, ‘choice’ is no more than a calculation contingent on a variable that has been misperceived as an invariable.”

The louse stared.

The philosopher stared back.

“Are you familiar with the Born rule?” the louse said finally.

This was not what the philosopher had had in mind when he got into catoptromancy. He shook his head. Then he nodded his head. “I mean,” he said. “Kind of.”

“The Born rule,” said the louse, “is a law of quantum mechanics. In layman’s terms, it posits that as long as something is mobile, it is possible to be located.”

The philosopher stared. “Ah,” he said.

“In the context of this situation,” said the louse, “I think the Born rule makes itself rather self-evident, does it not?”

The philosopher gulped, discovering that he was too dehydrated to do so. He should have paid the utilities, he realized, feeling very small and insignificant.

“I’m a metaphysical libertarian,” said the louse. “Do you know what that is?”

The philosopher again shook his head. “No,” he said.

The louse’s antennae twitched in annoyance. It laughed. “Philistine,” it scoffed, turning its back to the philosopher. “Cretinous boor.”

Then it plunged its face into the soft tissue of the apartment floor, and began to suck.

{ X }

IAN KAPPOS was born and raised in Northern California but currently lives in Los Angeles where he is an MFA candidate at CalArts. His writing has appeared in numerous places, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first chapbook collection of fiction, Crossfaded in Narniais forthcoming 2018 from Eibonvale Press. Find him online at www.iankappos.net.

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