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When the Smoke Clears


I.

A long time ago, when children were taken seriously, the Lacustrians lived happily in Blackbird Valley beside Pine Lake. In the mornings they would gather fruit in the wood or catch fish in the lake, and the rest of the day everybody did what they liked best - making music, painting cave walls, collecting shells, telling stories or just taking a walk. They only spoke when it was necessary, and while they had lots of time, they had no time for small talk.

But one day a strange bunch of pale people approached their valley. Some of them had weapons, and they all carried stakes. When they arrived, each of them put several stakes in the ground, after which they proceeded to the woods where they did the same.

‘What is going on?’ asked the Lacustrians’ chieftain.
‘We are staking our claims,’ one of the strangers replied. ‘This land belongs to us now.’
‘But we have been gathering fruit and hunting game here since time began.’
‘Have you staked a claim?’ the stranger asked.
‘No,’ replied the chieftain.
‘Well then,’ the other said and pushed him aside.
The chieftain was stumped. ‘Who says we have to stake claims?’ but the other ignored his question.

The chieftain approached another pale one. ‘If you claim the wood, what will we eat?’
‘We not only claim the wood but the lake as well. But if you work for us, we will sell you food.’
‘What kind of work?’
‘Anything we need done. First of all, you can build a wall around the wood to make sure nobody trespasses.’

As the strangers headed for the hill to build their homes, the chieftain gathered the people of the village and discussed the situation.
‘They haven’t planted the wood, and they haven’t made the fruits in it,’ someone said. ‘How could it be theirs?’
‘We’ve always welcomed strangers,’ another commented, ‘but these people try to rob us of everything we have.’
Everybody was furious about the intruders’ arrogant behaviour and sense of entitlement, and it was decided to chase them away. The Lacustrians had no weapons of their own, but they picked up sticks and stones, and they were sure that even though the Greedies, as they called the newcomers, had swords and spears, they could beat them - after all, there were hundreds of Lacustrians against a few dozen Greedies.

In the meantime the Greedies had made it halfway up the hill and stopped to have a rest. They felled and chopped up a lake pine to light a fire on which they cooked the food they had brought with them.

In the distance they saw the angry villagers approaching, and the armed ones prepared for battle and held their weapons ready. As they came closer, the Greedies could hear them shout, ‘This is our valley, go away!’ and ‘You have no right to take our village, our wood and our lake!’

Despite the smoke from the fire blowing in their faces, the villagers ran towards the Greedies, ready to drive out the unwanted intruders. But suddenly they slowed down and began to discuss with each other.
‘Actually, wasn’t it our own fault not to stake our claims in the valley? If we had only thought of it in time.’
The others nodded. ‘I guess we have to count our losses,’ said another, and the Lacustrians slowly walked back to their village.

‘You see, it worked,’ said one of the Greedies. ‘The smoke of burning lake pines breaks their rebellious spirits and makes them docile and obedient.’
‘And what if some are resistant to the smoke?’
‘The other villagers will take care of them. In any mainstreamed society, those who are different will automatically be ignored or even ousted.’

After the Greedies had built their huts on the hill, they returned to the valley with lots of firewood from lake pines which they piled up and lit in the centre of the village.
‘This will be an eternal fire,’ their leader told the Lacustrians. ‘It shall remind you at all times of the day when we arrived here to save you from your savage ways. You will always feed the fire with lake pine wood and make sure it never goes out.’
The Greedies even organised a big party around the fire to celebrate their arrival, and the Lacustrians used that opportunity to chat to their new masters.
“They sure talk a lot,’ one of the Greedies said to another.
‘That’s fine by me,’ the other smiled. ‘The more they talk, the less they think.’
Then he told four men that they had to guard the fire at all times to make sure it would always burn - two of them during the daytime, and two of them at night. They also strictly forbade the villagers to approach their hill.

The Greedies then hired a couple of men to build a wall around the wood that would protect it from Lacustrians, others to harvest fruit, some were stationed at the lake to make sure nobody would take water without paying, and some were sent to go fishing in the lake. All the remaining villagers were told to weave flower garlands and baskets. The workers were paid in pebbles which in turn they could use to buy fruit, fish, water, garlands and baskets from the Greedies.

Life in the village was never the same after the Greedies arrived. Some people were not paid enough to make a decent living, and even though they spent all their pebbles on water and food, they were still going hungry. And because of that they were no longer able to look after the people who were not able to work at all, like those who were blind or paralysed. On the other hand, some were paid a lot, but instead of helping the poor, they kept buying garlands and baskets, both of which were very expensive. When you saw a woman who wore three or four different garlands a day, or a man who hung dozens of baskets around his hut, you knew that they must be very important people.


II.

All this happened hundreds of years before Pervicax was born, and when he grew up, nobody knew any different from accepting that the land and water belonged to the Greedies and that one had to work for them to make a living.

His uncle had been the first to lose his job when the demand for baskets declined. The reason was probably that he had once complained about being only paid two pebbles for every basket he made while the Greedies sold the baskets for five hundred pebbles each. Since then he sat near the lake, begging for a cup of water or a piece of fish from the villagers who bought their supplies right there instead of having them delivered to their doors.

He had also heard of a man who openly spoke out against the Greedies, claiming that they exploit the villagers and should be driven out. That man was immediately sent into exile by the chieftain.

Pervicax himself was different from other children. He spent a lot of time on his own, making up songs or stories, and he spent most of his pocket pebbles to buy empty shells from the villagers who were able to afford seafood.

His parents were worried about him. ‘You hardly spend any time with other children, and even though you’re almost grown up now, you don’t have a single basket. People are talking about you.’
‘I don’t need any baskets. When I need to carry something, I use my bag.’
‘But everybody else collects baskets. You’re the laughing stock of the village for spending all your pebbles on those pointless shells instead.’
‘They’re beautiful,’ Pervicax replied, ‘that’s why I collect them.’
‘But why so many of them?’ his father, a councillor of the chieftain, asked him. ‘They’re all the same.’
‘They’re not. Even those of the same species have different shades and patterns. There are no two shells that are the same, that’s what fascinates me about them.’

Just as the other villagers wondered about him, Pervicax wondered about them. Why were they so obsessed with buying baskets and garlands? Why did they feel lonely when they didn’t have anyone to have a chat with for a few hours? And most of all, why did they accept the Greedies’ claim to their valley and allowed them to dictate every aspect of their lives?

When he grew older, he got work as a water carrier, but he never stopped thinking about the strange attitude of the other villagers. He believed that a long time ago they must have been independent and rational human beings, and that something happened that had turned them into the mindless robots they were today. And whatever it was, he was sure it had something to do with the arrival of the Greedies hundreds of years before.
And one day, as he passed the eternal fire in the centre of the village, he remembered that the flames were only supposed to be fed with logs from lake pines. For the first time he realised that this was strange - after all, there were plenty of other trees that provided good firewood. He also remembered that the seeds of the lake pine were often used to help people with anxiety and sleeplessness because of their calming effect. Could the smoke from the eternal fire have that calming effect on the entire village and turn reasonable people into unthinking and obedient subjects of the Greedies?

In order to put his theory to the test, he asked his father if he could have a word with the chieftain to get him a different job. ‘As a water carrier, I have to talk to people all day, and I’m not really good at that. I think I’d do better in a job in which I can work in solitude, such as a lumberjack for the eternal fire.’
He was lucky, and soon he started his work in the wood. He sought and felled stone pines whose wood looks exactly the same as that of lake pines, but because their needles and cones look very different, he made sure to have all of them removed before bringing the logs to the eternal fire.
If he was right, the effect of the lake pine fire would wear off as soon as the old lake pine logs had been burnt and the guardians started using the stone pines instead, and the villagers would eventually wake up from their trance.

Two days later, just as Pervicax went to work, he saw his father standing in front of his basket collection.
‘Twenty-one baskets,’ he said to himself. ‘I have spent my life collecting twenty-one baskets. What was I thinking?’
On his way to the wood he ran into two of the wealthiest women of the village and noticed that one of them, for the first time in her life, didn’t wear a garland.
‘What happened, Millie?’ the other woman sneered at her. ‘Did you run out of pebbles?’
‘Not at all,’ Millie replied. ‘I just realised that my hair looks a lot better without a garland.’
He also passed a basket weaver who mumbled under his breath, ‘What am I doing with my life? There must be more than just weaving baskets for the rich.’
‘It works,’ Pervicax said to himself, ‘it can only be a matter of days now...’ And he was right.

The following day, a meeting was called in which all villagers agreed to claim back their valley, their lake and their wood, and to chase the Greedies away from their home. After the meeting, they all armed themselves with sticks and stones and went up to the hill.


© 6258 RT (2017 CE) by Frank L. Ludwig