We Have Always Failed

“It’s very simple. We need to ask for surrender terms,” said the deputy commander of the city militia of Qenixtlan. His words fell clearly on the silence in the conference room. “The reason is also simple. The fact is that the Grand Empire’s army always succeeds. They win every battle. But we always fail. We have never won a single battle.

Copyright © 2013 Henry E. Neufeld
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, place, thing, or event in the real world is purely coincidental.

The commander looked around the room. He saw the failure on every face. Nobody believed that there was any reason to fight. No matter how horrible the stories were of how the Grand Empire of the Sun treated conquered peoples, there was not one person who was willing to take the risk resistance. However badly they might be treated if they surrendered, it would be much worse if they resisted and lost. And in their minds, they had already failed.

And he knew that they were right, at least about the history of failure. Their city had been conquered four times in the previous century. Their militia had proven quite capable of arresting thieves and rounding up juvenile delinquents. Every time they met a foreign army in battle, however, they lost. The only reason they were independent right now was that their last conqueror had simply collapsed about a decade ago.

He looked around the room, and he knew he couldn’t fight it. Not today, in any case. “Very well, then,” he said. “You are dismissed. The militia is disbanded.” He stood up and walked out the door without meeting anyone’s eyes.

It took a several minutes for the shocked men to leave the room. They were stunned. Everyone would complain. It was expected. Nobody actually believed they would succeed. Why should they? It was true that they had never won a single battle against a foreign invader. They had a truly unbroken record of failure. But there was a tradition to uphold. The commander was supposed to lecture them. He was supposed to exhort them. He was supposed to raise their morale by telling them they could succeed. They wouldn’t believe it. Likely he wouldn’t believe it either, but they would all pretend. Then when the enemy attacked, they would stand for a few minutes for form’s sake before they dropped their weapons and raised their arms over their head.

The word spread through the city. Some people started collecting a few possessions and loading them into carts so they could escape the city before the enemy arrived. The king wanted to call the commander in to ask him what he thought he was doing. What negotiating platform would he have if he didn’t even have a militia? There would be no reason for the invader to offer the city any kind of favorable treatment when they could simply march in. But the commander could not be found.

The next morning people were shocked to see recruiting posters all over town. They were signed by the commander and they read: “All those who are willing to resist the invader should report to a point one kilometer north of the city at the old fortress at noon today. Only those prepared to fight should report. We will form the Regional Defense Militia.”

It was signed by the missing commander.

Men looked at one another. Everyone was hoping that his neighbor wasn’t going to go meet north of the city. Then some of the younger men grabbed whatever weapons they had and headed north. Soon some of the older men, shamed by the action of the younger men, headed north as well. By noon, there was quite a crowd at the fort. Almost all of the same men who had been in that comfortable conference room were there. Even the deputy commander had showed up.

Somehow those who were used to being leaders found themselves inside the courtyard. It wasn’t comfortable like the conference room downtown. It wasn’t in all that good of repair. Since the fort was only intended to help resist invaders, nobody paid much attention to it. After all, nobody had successfully resisted an invader in living memory.

The commander raised his hand. Amazingly, silence fell in the room, though there was still quite a bit of noise coming from outside where the crowd had gathered.

“We are the Regional Defense Militia,” he said. “We just came into existence. We will send messengers to all the towns, villages, and farms within a week’s travel and invite them to join us in fighting the enemy. And fight we will. We will stand. We will not surrender. We are the Regional Defense Militia of Qenixtlan, and we will win, because we have never failed.”

The entire group broke into cheers. They didn’t know why, but they even believed it.

But the commander knew. He knew these men knew how to fight. He knew they were willing to die, if necessary. But they had known—not believed, but known—they were going to fail.

And that is why the southern border of the Grand Empire of the Sun is located just to the north of Qenixtlan. Three times they have sent their armies to take the city, and three times they have lost.

The commander will tell you this is because for the first time, they have encountered an army that has never failed, never lost a single battle.

(See Ephesians 6:13, or perhaps 6:10-20.)

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Failures.)

What Honor Demands

When 16-year-old Winifred determined that she was pregnant, she knew she had to take action immediately. It would not be long until her mother would start asking questions. Her mother, in turn, would doubtless tell either Winifred’s father, or her maternal grandfather, depending on how angry she was. If she was really angry, she’d tell both. In any of these cases, the consequences did not bear contemplation.

So Winifred packed a small bag and exited the house through her own bedroom window. Her mother was not the sort of person who could imagine exiting any building through a window, so Winifred was relatively certain this was safe.

She made her way to the home of the Keretian commercial representative.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013
Henry E. Neufeld

To understand her decision, one must have some understanding of her home town, the small seaport of Aroqra. Despite having a relatively good seaport near several major shipping lanes, Aroqra was a poor town. It was multicultural, not in the sense of having developed a diverse mix of thriving cultures, but in the sense of having collected the remnants of many cultures. Specifically, those who were unable to leave for some reason.

Aroqra could, by the very optimistic, be called a city-state. At the moment it was ruled by someone who styled himself the sultan, though less than a decade earlier, it had been ruled by a king, and before that by a mayor. Few remembered any further back than that. It mattered very little to the inhabitants. The same man had been chief of police through all those changes of government, and he and his people enforced a sort of consensus law as best they could. The mayor, king, or sultan could decree, but the police enforced, and they enforced what they thought they could get by with enforcing. What they couldn’t manage to solve in this way, they let people solve for themselves.

The Keretians were primarily a seagoing people, with widespread commercial interests. They preferred to establish commercial representatives, who served as their ambassadors, wherever they could. In general, they expected these to be treated as embassies, unless they could manage to arrange extraterritorial rights for their citizens. In the case of Aroqra, they had simply stacked silver coins in front of the sultan until he guaranteed them their extraterritorial rights.

But to get back to the world as Winifred knew it, the Keretian ambassador had a son, also 16 years old, who had become quite popular in the community. His name was Malkish, and it was to him, not the building, that Winifred ran.

Malkish hid Winifred in one of the unused rooms of his father’s rather large home. It should be noted that this home was also his father’s place of business, and that it was surrounded by a substantial wall and guarded by armed guards. None of these guards paid any attention to the activities of the teenagers, however.

However long it might have taken Winifred’s mother, Marga, to discover that her daughter was pregnant had the girl stayed home, it took practically no time at all for her to come to that conclusion when she discovered the girl had run away. It took very little time after that for her to discover where Winifred had gone. Winifred was sneaky enough to climb out the window, but not sneaky enough to avoid the many witnesses who had seen her walk from her home to Malkish’s home.

And thus began the trouble …

“Our daughter is pregnant,” Marga said to her husband.

“Pregnant?!” he yelled. “Impossible!”

“Nonetheless it is so.”

“You have failed in your duty as a mother! You should have prevented this.” He would have struck his wife, but he restrained himself. After all, she could enter any room while he slept and she cooked his food.

“It is you,” she said, “who permits her to roam the town. What did you think would happen?” He was unhappy to be reminded of this, but it was true that he was very indulgent of his daughter.

Winifred’s father thought throughout the afternoon. Finally he decided that he would have to take a little trip into the countryside to the west, a trip from which Winifred would not return.

“Honor demands that this stain be erased,” he told his wife.

She had expected precisely this result.

“Bring her to me!” he demanded.

When he found out that Winifred was not available, he was furious. He went out and told his relatives who told their relatives. By the next morning, there was a crowd gathered in front of the Keretian commercial representative’s building.

Yarub, the representative, could not understand what the problem was. The crowd was demanding that he bring out a girl he’d never heard of. He asked his staff, but nobody knew. He asked his guards, and finally someone said that Malkish had brought a young woman into the compound the day before, but that wasn’t particularly unusual, was it?

So Yarub called for Malkish, who admitted that he had hidden the girl in the compound.

“She has sought refuge here,” said Malkish. “Doesn’t honor demand that we protect her?”

Yarub couldn’t see any reason why honor would demand that he protect a random girl, but then he thought of one circumstance in which it would. If Malkish was the father of this pregnant girl’s child, then honor would demand that he protect them both. Keretians were very protective of their offspring, even if they had not been conceived after the wedding.

Yarub allowed Winifred’s father to come into the compound to talk.

“Honor demands that my daughter be given to me, so she can pay for the disgrace she has brought on our family,” said the angry father. He didn’t specify just how the girl would pay.

“But she is carrying my son’s child,” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect her and my grandchild!”

One of the guards whispered to Yarub. “What?” he asked. “This man would kill his daughter!”

“I didn’t say that,” muttered Winifred’s father.

“But you didn’t deny it either. That’s what you mean, ‘pay’. You mean to kill her, and my grandchild at the same time! I will not allow her to leave this compound! You will leave immediately!”

“You are a dishonorable man! Who are you to stand between me and my daughter!”

But the guards threw the angry father out of the gate. The crowd continued to yell and occasionally throw rocks, but there was little they could do other than block the entrance.

Marga also told her father what had happened, and explained how her husband was going to kill her daughter if he could, because honor demanded it.

But Marga’s clan did not have the same custom’s as her husband’s.

“Honor demands that we kill the man who has defiled my grandaughter,” said Marga’s father.

Soon there were two competing crowds in front of the Keretian commercial building, one demanding that Winifred be sent out to them, and the other than Malkish be sent out. From time to time, men from the competing groups would get into fights.

Jeloran was a captain in the city police. In fact, his task was criminal investigation. And despite the fact that he had no tools or training, and was paid very little, he took his job seriously.

For some time he observed the groups gathered in from of the Keretian commercial building. He heard the crowds yelling at each other about honor and what it demanded. Perhaps, he thought, honor demands that someone find out exactly what has happened here!

So he started asking around. Very quickly he discovered that Winifred was not known to be regularly in Malkish’s company. Like most of the young people of the town, she hung around the group that hung around him. He was rich, he was flamboyant, he was exotic, and the young people did that. But Winifred was not especially closely connected to him.

He kept asking, and finally he discovered that there was a young man, from the wrong side of town (there were lots of wrong sides in Aroqra). He contrived to corner the young man out of sight of any of the contenders. This was easy to do, as the contenders were all gathered at the gate to the Keretian compound.

“Pregnant?” said the young man. “How could she be pregnant?”

“The usual way,” snapped Jeloran. Surely the young man knew how babies were made.

“We played around,” said the boy, “but we didn’t go all the way. I swear it! But if she is in trouble, she can come home with me.”

Jeloran thought about that for a moment. It would never do! The people who were now outside the Keretians’ gate would burn this poor kid’s house down around him in a moment.

“Don’t tell anybody what I’ve said. I’ll see to it she’s alright. But things will go very badly if you say anything. Understand?”

The kid understood.

Jeloran went and found a healer, and they both went back to the Keretian compound. They made it through the crowd because Jeloran listed so sympathetically to the demands of both sides that he bring Winifred and/or Malkish out with him. Instead, Jeloran went to Yarub’s office.

“I would like to see Malkish and Winifred,” he said.

“I am not going to let any of you barbarians kill my grandchild!” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect both the child and its mother!”

“Are you sure there is a grandchild?” asked Jeloran.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you sure the girl Winifred is pregnant?”

“My son said she was. Why would he say that if it wasn’t true?”

“What if he just took her word for it? What if he even knew he couldn’t be the father?”

Yarub sat there silently. “He always did have a soft heart,” he said finally. Then he called both of the young people to his office.

When Winifred saw the healer she tried to run. The healer just said, “What do you think I’m going to do to you, girl?”

“I don’t know!” said Winifred.

“Are you actually pregnant?”

“No. I thought I was. I was late. I now know I’m not.”

“Could you have been the father?” Yarub asked Malkish.

“No, father, but honor demanded …”

“Yes, I know. Honor. Everyone is talking about honor.” He turned to Jeloran. “What can we do? Everyone wants to kill someone.”

“Oh, I think this can all be solved, if you’re willing to spend what will be, for you, a small sum of money. The healer hear will confirm that the girl is not pregnant. There’s no way he can really be sure at this early stage, but the people out there believe he can. He’ll want his bill paid, by the way. Then your son will swear that he did not have sex with the girl at any time. If the two men, the girls father and her maternal grandfather are satisfied, then the crowds will disperse. Then you offer her a job that requires that she go elsewhere for training.”

“In my experience, men around here are not anxious for their daughters to get jobs,” said Yarub.

“That is quite true, but in this case, they are going to have problems marrying this girl off to anyone after this. There will always be a taint. Her father will accept that she’s innocent, because he never really wanted to kill her in the first place. But everyone else will have doubts. But you’ll need to offer a bit of money to keep the father happy.”

“It seems I’m paying a lot for a girl who is not my son’s girlfriend,” he said, looking pointedly at Malkish.

“But,” said Jeloran before the boy could speak, “you’ll end the disturbance at your gates, and you’ll have several people in your debt.”

“True,” said Yarub.

And so it happened that Winifred was recruited for a job in a distant land, and her father gave her permission to accept.

After all the negotiations were complete, Jeloran had one more task to complete. He called Yarub aside.

“There’s a young man,” he said, “who is actually Winifred’s boyfriend. I’m wondering if you could do something for him.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Might I suggest that my honor demands that I do something for him, to reward him for honestly answering the question that led me to the solution to all of this.”

“That’s your honor, not mine.”

“But would it not, perhaps, be helpful for you to have the chief investigator of the city police in your debt as well, a debt of honor? I take my honor very seriously.”

“Oh, I see,” said Yarub. And he did.

(This post was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Honor.)

 

Due Honor to Those to Whom It Is Due When It Is Due

“You have to pay your dues,” said the professor. “You must give due honor to the people to whom it is due when it is due. Honor comes only after due time spent in study as a leaner, and a duly humble one at that. Just as the dew falls on the ground, this is what the student must do.”

The professor thought himself a rather clever man with words. In fact, he was a professor of military science, and wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought. But he was still the professor, and today he was lecturing a student, though one he expected to soon be an ex-student. Ex-student, he would point out, as though his students would miss it, is very different from graduate. An ex-student is just someone who pretended to learn, but failed to do so. A graduate is due honor and respect. Less honor and respect than his teacher, but nonetheless honor and respect.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

“Now you, Schultweiss, you are not a good student. The only thing due you is a dismissal from this university. You will never amount to anything. You will never be a great tactician or strategist. You will never be cited by other scholars when they research military history or other topics.” To the professor, honor was measured in how often one’s works were cited by other scholars.

Armand Schultweiss only half listened to this lecture. He’d tried to argue earlier when the professor told him that his ideas about maneuverability were really quite wrong, but the professor cut him off. Nobody had ever operated in that way before. It wouldn’t work. Where were his citations? He wrote entire pages of his thesis without any footnotes at all! Did he think one of his youth and lack of credentials was capable of having his own thoughts, thoughts not rooted in and nurtured by the authorities?

And then, after making his final clever speech, he dismissed Armand. Four years of hard study wasted. No degree meant no recommendations. No recommendations meant nobody was going to hire him for their guard. He could try to enlist in the army, but his career potential as a commoner would be limited.

***** 25 years later *****

General Armand Schultweiss watched as his opposite number and staff marched stiffly into his command tent. It was a reversal of historic proportions. He had come into this battle outnumbered  two to one, with troops that were considered less well-trained. (It should be noted that Schultweiss disagreed with this assessment of his troops.) He commanded the forces of the tiny new Republic of Zeeland, formerly the province of Zeeland, against the forces of the Ardenean Empire, at least those available in the local area.

But then Schultweiss noticed one man in the opposing delegation. It was the professor, serving as an adviser to his opponent. The professor showed no sign of recognizing Schultweiss. In fact, he showed no sign throughout the surrender ceremony.

But before closing the ceremony, he turned and asked, “Professor, what are you doing here?”

The professor was startled. He was not surprised that he had been recognized as a professor. Every well-educated military officer should know his name and should have read his books and papers. What surprised him was the question. If his services were available, why would he not be employed on a general’s staff? He was the foremost expert!

“Why would I not be here?” asked the professor.

“After you expelled me from the university, I checked your record. You have never before served on a military staff, nor were you ever a soldier or an officer. Isn’t this the first time you’ve served on any officer’s staff?”

“Well, yes. It seemed to me that since I’ve retired from teaching it was due time that I put some of my knowledge into practice.”

“And would you say that your advice was appreciated?”

“Oh yes! The general relied heavily on my knowledge, especially of military history.”

“So you would say that the battle plan used by the imperial forces was yours?”

“You could say that.” The professor seemed oblivious to the situation. He was proud of his plan and the fact that it had been adopted.

“A long time ago you said to me: ‘You have to pay your dues. You must give due honor to the people to whom it is due when it is due.’ That was right before you expelled me. Do you remember that?”

“I said that to many upstart students, students who failed to give their professor and their betters the respect they were due.”

“I’m just wondering, professor, how much honor is due a battle plan, or the person who crafted it, when that battle plan fails as miserably as your plan has today.”

The professor looked stunned. It was at least a full minute before he spoke. “I can see why I expelled you. You have no respect for your betters. My battle plan was perfection itself. It took into account all the established principles of strategy. It took account of all the historical factors.”

“But you lost,” said the general.

The look on the professor’s face was genuinely puzzled. “I’ll tell you what I think,” said General Schultweiss. When he saw that the professor was about to speak, he continued quickly. “I think that very little respect is due to a battle plan that fails. I think little honor is due to a professor whose first experience of battle came after he retired, in a battle which he lost. But I’m thankful to you, professor. If so many of the empire’s officers had not been trained under you, I would probably have lost this battle.”

Then General Schultweiss laughed. The delegation that had just surrendered were first astonished, then furious at this treatment. Even a surrendering general and his staff were due respect. “Actually, professor,” the general concluded, “the Republic of Zeeland thanks you for its independence!”

And he turned and left.

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Due.)

How Scrooge Got It All Wrong

Scrooge really doesn’t get it, someone thought. Perhaps he needs a little shove.

It was a fine Christmas Eve, and Ebenezer Scrooge was at home eating his supper. He had done well that day. Corn sold at above the market rate. Debts collected from people who couldn’t afford it. He’d put Bob Cratchit in his place, and he’d get that much more work from him in the coming year because of it. The collectors for charity had been sent packing. Everyone would know that Scrooge meant business, so those with business on their minds would come to Scrooge and Marley. That meant success!

He heard a loud thump on the doorstep. Then there was a rattle. Some clinks. The first could be an accident. The second might still have nothing to do with him. But the third convinced him there was someone at his door, and at this time of night that could only be a thief, though why a thief would make so much noise escaped him.

He grabbed his walking stick and went to the door. He was about to open in when there was another rattle, and then a clunk. (The distinction between a “clink” and a “clunk” is esoteric, but worth investigating.) There was something wrong here. He bent down to look out through the keyhole, but before his eye adjusted to the darkness something slammed into his head and he fell over backwards.

He recovered from that undignified position only to see a largish man. He was decorated with chains of gold and silver. He had two large chests encrusted with gemstones. Scrooge was wondering how heavy they were when the man set one down on a floor. Clunk! Now that was a real clunk.

“Who are you?” asked Scrooge.

“I am Jacob Marley, your late business partner,” replied the man. Scrooge hadn’t noticed until now that the man didn’t appear quite solid. Not wispy like a cloud, but just not entirely there, you  know.

“You do resemble my partner, but what are you doing here?”

“I came to give you some advice.”

“It looks like you might need some advice yourself. Perhaps someone to help carry those chests.”

“Oh, no! I wouldn’t give these to anyone else for the world!”

“But if you’re dead, you’re a spirit. Does a spirit have use for any of those things?”

“Well …” Marley paused briefly and awkwardly. “We don’t actually use them here, but they’re a sign of status. I have very high status in the spirit world.”

“But you don’t use them?” asked Scrooge.

“Status is important,” replied Marley. “And besides. You have every bit as much, or even more, than I have. What good does it do you?”

“I can spend my money. I can invest it and make more!”

“But here you are in a dimly lit room. You don’t want to waste candles. That food you’re eating isn’t that much better than what the poor eat, and your clothes, while not exactly worn and ratty are not excessively fine or comfortable. In fact, other than making more money, I don’t see how you use yours any better than I do mine.”

“I see.” Scrooge paused thoughtfully. “So what was your advice?”

“You really don’t get the possibilities of Christmas.”

“Bah, humbug! Not you too on this Christmas thing. I don’t intend to waste my money making people merry on Christmas!”

“Ah, but you do like making money, do you not?”

“I do.”

“I thought so. And it is well that you do. You will have high status when you reach the spirit realm. You will have even more to carry around than I do!” Marley looked enviously at his partner.

“So how can Christmas make me money?”

“Finally!” said Marley. “You are asking the right question. How can you make money indeed! But that is not for me to tell you. You will be visited tonight by three spirits. They will advise you. Listen well! May you be honored with a heavy load!”

“But what if I don’t want a heavy load?” asked Scrooge, but Marley was slowly fading away.

As the clock struck one in the morning, Scrooge heard a whisper of a breeze run through his bedroom. He would have missed it if he hadn’t been awake worrying about the appearance of the spirits. A man appeared in the room dressed much like Scrooge himself would dress for business.

“Who are you?” asked Scrooge.

“I am the ghost of Christmas past. Or let’s just make it this past Christmas. That’s far enough to go.”

“So what do you do?”

“I show you your past mistakes. Like this!”

There was a whooshing sound, and Scrooge saw various colors and objects he couldn’t identify fly past him. Suddenly he was standing in front of a poulterer’s stand and he recognized himself talking to the owner. The stand was decorated with Christmas candles, quite an innovation on this street, and the owner wanted a loan. He remembered the incident. The owner had requested a loan and he had refused on the grounds that he was wasting money on the decorations. How could he be a sound investment with all that waste?

The owner argued that more people saw his stand and would buy from him with the decorations. He argued that it wasn’t a waste.

“Christmas is for idle people!” exclaimed Scrooge, refusing the loan.

“Stupid, stupid man!” said the spirit. “Big mistake!”

“But he went out of business within the month!”

“Because he couldn’t get a loan. Let me show you what would have happened if you had loaned him money.”

The scene shifted. Scrooge watched as more and more people went to that poulterer’s stand. By the time the next Christmas came around, he had a storefront rather than a stand. The moving scene slowed and stopped.

“He would have repaid that loan and borrowed from you twice more during the same year, and paid you back on time and with full interest. But you didn’t get it because you were upset about decorations.”

“But decorations are frivolous! They have nothing to do with making money!”

“People buy things. People like decorations. It’s all in how you look at it—or how you present it!”

And with that Scrooge found himself back in his own bedroom. It looked pretty drab to him for just a moment.

And suddenly he was awakened by a gong. It sounded like a very loud alarm clock. The spirit—he knew that’s who it was immediately this time—was a young flashily dressed man. Scrooge knew some younger men of business who would dress this way. He thought them frivolous. He was sure they would eventually fail at business.

The spirit wasted no time. “I’m the spirit of Christmas present. That’s today. Right now. Let’s go.”

And Scrooge found himself on the floor of the exchange where he was negotiating the price of corn.

“You think that was a good piece of business, don’t you?”

“Indeed I do!”

“Wrong! Bad idea! Very bad idea!”

“But I got an excellent price for that corn!”

“And later this year someone will show up and undercut you, and then what will you do?”

“There will always be someone who needs some corn.”

“But you could keep these folks as customers as well.”

“How would I do that?”

“You offer them a Christmas discount.”

“And give away money?”

“You are such a straightforward sort of villain! No, first you raise the price, explaining that you then give them a Christmas discount. You tie the discount to a longer term contract. Or, alternatively, you offer them credit, and make up the difference in the interest. Cornering them on one deal was good. Getting them tied to you as permanent customers who can’t afford to get away. That’s priceless! Christmas has countless commercial possibilities!”

But again the spirit took him by the arm and he found himself watching the Christmas party at his nephew’s house.

“Idleness! Waste!” he muttered.

“But such valuable idleness!” said the spirit.

“Valuable?”

“You see the drinks? Add up the price in your head. The meat? Bread? New clothes to show off at the party?”

Scrooge’s face fell as he added up the total of the waste.

“Why does your face fall?”

“It’s the waste!”

“But all of that money went to business in this community, and several of those businesses owe you money. In fact, you could get someone like your nephew to help you. He could talk about Christmas to all his friends, while you invest in the business that provide the necessities for celebrating Christmas right.”

“But my nephew really believes in all this. He would never do it to help me make money.”

“He wouldn’t really have to know. He encourages people to ‘keep Christmas right’ and you make money on it. Soon people think that if they don’t have a large enough goose for Christmas dinner, they’re not good people.”

“So I tell them to buy more stuff?”

“You don’t understand. You need to encourage people to have parties. They buy stuff for the parties. That puts money in your pocket. I know you envied the wealth your late partner carries in the next world, and you will have much more. But you could double, triple, or even quadruple that amount!

“About that,” said Scrooge, “I still don’t get what that money does for a spirit in the next world.”

“It makes you wealthy!” said the spirit. And he deposited Scrooge back in his bedroom.

Scrooge never really heard the clock strike three. He was overwhelmed by the sound of a large crowd. People were yelling and shoving one another. They kept running into one another in the aisles. Yes, those were aisles, with merchandise on all sides. He had never even imagined anything the size of this store, for a store it obviously was. At the front there were lines of people waiting to pay for things that they had piled up in little push carts. The lights were not candles, but Scrooge couldn’t identify them.

“Where am I?” asked Scrooge.

The spirit was a woman in some type of uniform with her name on a tag. The tag read “Ghost of Christmas Future.” She looked businesslike and efficient.

“You are in the future of Christmas,” she said.

“The future of Christmas? What does this have to do with Christmas?”

“This is what will happen if you will just follow the advice the spirits have given you.”

She led Scrooge up to the counters where people were, he thought, paying for their goods. He watched as they passed little cards through a machine of some time.

“Where is the money?” he asked.

“Those little cards pass the money through the machine. In fact, most of them are borrowing money to pay for their Christmas shopping. The card automatically borrows it for them.”

“Lending money to buy Christmas presents? Somebody must be insane! You borrow money to buy goods to sell. You borrow money to build buildings. You borrow money to create a business. You don’t borrow money to buy Christmas presents. You would be ruined!”

“Ah, but the people lending the money are doing very well. They make large amounts of money on the borrowers. These people will be paying the bankers for the next year, and maybe the next and the next.”

“But many of them won’t be able to pay the money back and the bankers will lose.”

“But there are increased interest rates, fees for late payments, fees for borrowing more than your limit …”

“Borrowing more than your limit? How is it a limit if you can borrow more than that?”

“The limit is flexible. But if you go over, there’s a monthly fee. Then the payment every month is very small, so once you add up the fees and the interest rates, your balance may actually increase every month even when you’re not buying anything.”

“But then you would never get paid back.”

“But that doesn’t matter. Eventually you can make more money in fees and interest than you loaned in the first place. Then if the people can’t pay, you sell your loan to debt collectors and let them pursue the people for the money. You only get a few cents on the dollar, but since they may now owe you thousands when they only borrowed hundreds, you don’t care.”

“But what happens if people start to realize what’s going on and quit borrowing, or they all fail to pay and end up in debtor’s prison. What do you do then?”

“Well, we don’t have debtor’s prison any more, but I get your point. It can all collapse when people start to get worried about how much they owe. But what you do is prepare a golden parachute for yourself.”

“What’s a golden parachute?”

“A golden parachute guarantees that while your business goes bankrupt, you yourself get paid a large sum of money and can continue to live comfortably and even start a new business.”

“How … No, I don’t think I want to know. I’ve been such an amateur at business!”

When Scrooge woke up in the morning he called a boy to go and get the biggest goose from the poulterer. He paid him an extra shilling, explaining that it was Christmas. He sent it to his nephew with a note.

“My dear nephew,” it said. “I want to make sure you make the right impression with your Christmas feast. I think you know how to keep Christmas. Stop by the store tomorrow. I have a proposition for you.”

From now on, thought Scrooge, I’ll keep Christmas right!

Of Special Units of Measure

Seeing the word “dab” for the One Day at a Time blog carnival brought back memories of my mother’s cooking. Yes, this is another non-fiction entry. I just can’t resist.

My mother is a pretty good cook, at least if you like food for the health-conscious. If you’re into extremely sweet or very low fiber, perhaps not so much. But amongst our friends when I was younger, her food brought many compliments.

My parents believed in hospitality, and would frequently invite visitors home for lunch after church. If there was a pot-luck meal, we’d always be there with the appropriate dish prepared.

With the compliments would come the inevitable request for the recipe. But my mother doesn’t really cook with precise recipes. Rather than things measured in cups, teaspoons, drops, or any such precise quantities, we would take “some” water, add a “dump” of flour, perhaps a pinch or two of salt, a splash of oil, and so forth. Then one might put a “dab” or two of oil in the bread pan before using it for cooking. Of course I’ve skipped ingredients and much processing, but you get the idea.

I never really could get the idea, and neither could most other people. A “dump” doesn’t remain the same size. Four loaves of bread take a larger dump of flour, not to mention that “some” water changes in quantity. Mom could always get it in proportions, but it was very difficult to provide a recipe to those who requested one. She’d sometimes write one out, trying to figure out the proportions in “real” measures as best she could.

To this day I can’t cook that way, even though I had to learn how to cook a number of different dishes, not to mention learning how to bake bread when I was younger. I need a detailed recipe. If the recipe happens to skip a step, no matter how obvious, it doesn’t happen.

I was comparing this to giving instructions regarding how to do some process on a computer, something I find easy. My wife is less “loose” about her cooking than my mom is, but she still has a tendency to cook something until it’s done, rather than for 11 1/2 minutes. I set the timer to the second. She was telling me that I should know how to cook pasta by now and be able to tell when it’s finished. I asked her how long it had been on the stove. Then I pointed out that she likes her computer instructions to be very precise, probably for the same reason as I like my cooking directions detailed. Neither of us is comfortable in the other one’s natural space.

So perhaps the special unit of measure we all need is several dabs of understanding. When you know what you’re doing and you’re comfortable with the equipment and the process, less precise units work just fine. But when you don’t really understand the process, the only option is to get—and follow—precise directions.

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival, dab.)

Not Trusting New Cars

Every since I first found the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival it has been my habit to write a short story based on the chosen word. Last week I wrote about an experience I had, and today I’m writing a few reflections based on family history rather than a work of fiction. Of course, if these stories were passed around at a family reunion, I’m sure we’d find enough versions to make one think they were fiction. The word for this carnival is “new.”

Both my dad and my Uncle Don (Neufeld) had a suspicion of new cars. I recall a couple of times when we had a new or nearly new car, but generally we got something that was substantially used. I’ve inherited enough of that suspicion that my preference is to buy a car that has 20,000 miles or so on it. I lose the new car high price, and still have a reasonably recent vehicle for maintenance purposes.

That wasn’t the way my dad looked at it. For him, a car was not so much a means of transportation as an occasional hobby. He could take it apart and work on it. Whenever anyone wanted to go somewhere, he could complain about the various problems the car was having, thus providing an excellent reason not to drive the car at all. There were many times we thought we might go somewhere when my dad would say that the car needed work, and so it sat in the carport or garage as the case may be.

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When we were in Guyana, South America, a number of folks at the hospital where he worked were quite unhappy with his choice of vehicle. (He was a doctor and medical director of Davis Memorial Hospital in Georgetown, Guyana.) A number of people in the administration thought his car didn’t look respectable for a doctor, especially a hospital’s medical director. But he stuck with his purchase of a Morris Minor. I don’t know the year, but it looked a great deal like the 1960 model shown at the left. It was about that old as well—this was 1971.

It did run from time to time. I recall a few trips across country and it ran fairly well. There was a joke amongst our friends about needing to feed the hamsters well, but that was an exaggeration.

Nonetheless, people thought the car just didn’t look like a doctor’s car.

My dad didn’t care. He spent many hours tinkering with that car. I don’t know whether he was keeping it running or making sure it stayed up on the jacks.

He wasn’t always unwilling to use his cars. When we lived in Chiapas, Mexico, we drove a Mercury station wagon. I could tell a few stories about that little vehicle. It went any number of places it was not designed to go. For one thing, it’s 14 inch wheels made it pretty low, and we lived close to 90 miles from the nearest paved road.

One of the forms of mulch we used for gardening at the little mission station we had there was coffee hulls. We’d haul these in by the van load. One day the folks who had driven their van to get the coffee hulls hiked back in. The van had broken down. They were going to take the four wheel drive vehicle we normally had available and tow the van in, but it wasn’t working. Dad had purchased a new tow cable on his last trip to the U. S. and had never used it. This was his opportunity.

Everybody said the Mercury station wagon wouldn’t tow the van, especially with a full load of coffee hulls. But he was undeterred. I was only 8 or 9 years old, but I got to go along to see how this would work.

We drove out to where the van was stranded, hooked up the cable, and eased that little station wagon off and believe it or not, that van came right along. We managed to tow it all the way back to the top of the hill where it could just coast on in to home.

My first year in college I lived near my Uncle Don, and I discovered that he was no fan of new cars either. He had an old Chevy station wagon that had more than 200,000 miles on it. It ran quite well. He had a newer station wagon as well. My aunt Maxine told me that he bought the new station wagon just before making a trip across the continent. He chose to make the trip in the old vehicle because he didn’t trust the new one yet.

She also told another story about that older car. My uncle was fairly high up in his church organization. Once he was the main speaker for a camp meeting. He was turned away from the pastor’s parking lot because they didn’t think his car looked like a pastor’s car.

I conclude that perhaps there’s a reason to have fun with older cars!

Tlisli – An Inraline Court

Tlisli had never felt so low in her life. Even when she was running from home and facing the forbidden ground or looking for the first time into the face of Azzesh the Tlazil who, she was sure, was going to eat her, she had not felt this low. But her only experience of the law was in her home town where being arrested was pretty much the same as being convicted. But what was worse was that she now knew that the two men she had fought had been town guards. She had protested that they had attacked her and hadn’t told her they were guards, but the soldiers just told her to save that for the hearing in the morning.

When she heard about the “hearing” in the morning, she assumed that would be her trial. She’d never make it to meet Azzesh, and the Tlazil would abandon her, she was sure. Why go look for a girl who couldn’t keep a simple appointment? She slept very little. At least she was alone in her cell. She certainly didn’t want company, especially the sort that might be spending the night in jail. Of course, she was doing that too!

But Tlisli was wrong about Azzesh. When Tlisli didn’t show up at the dock, Azzesh went to look for her. It really required no effort to track her to the hostelry, and from there to the main castle of the Inraline Army for the outpost, the same building, in fact, where they had met with the commander the previous afternoon. The soldiers had gone to the hostelry to pick up Tlisli’s possessions, and so everyone knew where the girl was.

Azzesh asked the duty lieutenant what was going on with Tlisli, the foreign girl who had been arrested the night before. As with many folks around Tevelin, he knew of Azzesh the Tlazil, and was impressed that she should be taking an interest into the girl they had arrested the night before.

Now Inraline court procedures require just a little explanation. Azzesh understood them quite well, but Tlisli had no idea whatever. In her home town (a city state), the police had the power to arrest and punish. Any trials were conducted by those police courts. Though people didn’t realize this, it was a procedure that went back to the Tlazil empire five centuries before when the humans had been slaves. In throwing off the Tlazil Empire’s authority, the humans had changed the players, but had kept the procedures alive. So Tlisli’s view that arrest was much the same as conviction was quite correct–back home.

Inraline courts, however, derived their practice from naval procedures, even their civilian courts. The general practice when there was a fight was to arrest everyone involved, unless there was a very clear explanation and guilty party or parties. Then there would be a preliminary hearing which was military in style, though all participants might well be civilians. They would determine if there was to be a trial. If there was a trial, the decision would be made by a panel of three or five judges, led by one professional, with the remainder being chosen from among qualified people in the community.

In this outpost, Tlisli would be taken before a panel of military officers who would determine what had happened and would vote whether or not to charge any participants with a crime. Rather than arrest being equivalent to conviction, quite frequently everyone would be released. There was even a provision for compensating someone for the inconvenience of arrest if it appeared they were completely innocent. “Completely innocent” in Inraline law meant that the person had contributed nothing to any crime being committed, i.e. had done everything possible to keep the peace, even if those efforts failed in the end.

So when Azzesh heard the story of what had happened, even though she found out that one of the two attackers was now dead, she was not concerned. There was little chance that Tlisli would actually be charged with anything. She doubted she would be compensated for her night in jail, because one could argue that she behaved in a belligerent fashion and might reasonably have been expected to resolve the situation without anyone ending up dead.

Unfortunately, Azzesh never thought that Tlisli might not realize that this was going to come out OK.

It was mid-morning by the time Tlisli was led into the hearing room. Her first shock was seeing that one of the men who attacked her was also being led in. She had assumed, once she knew the men were police officers, that they would not be under arrest. It appeared she had been wrong. The second shock was when she saw Azzesh in the audience. The Tlazil hadn’t left her. Perhaps there was hope after all.

Three officers entered the room, everyone was told to stand, and then told to be seated. It happened so fast that not everyone even made it to their feet. There were two cases that came up before Tlisli’s, and both were charged with various crimes and scheduled for trial. The officers seemed bored. Then Tlisli was called and also the guard at the same time. One of the soldiers who had conducted the arrest got up and told the story of what they had seen and done. The chief of the panel then asked the guard for his story.

“My friend and I were off duty, just walking down the street. We tried to talk to this woman, just friendly-like, and before we knew what was happening she pulled her sword. She killed officer Abil before either of us had a chance to draw our weapons. If the soldiers hadn’t come along just in time, we’d both be dead and she’d be gone.” He was clearly trying to look sincere, but he kept looking around the room, and sweat was breaking out on his forehead.

“Had you ever met this woman before?” asked one the the judges.

“No, sir. We were in the bar earlier, and there were lots of people there, so she might have been there. But we didn’t meet.”

“OK,” said the lead judge. “Tlisli? What is your story?”

“Both of the men bought me drinks at the bar. They offered to buy more, but I didn’t want to get that drunk. They clearly wanted me to do more, but I wanted to get some sleep. I was supposed to leave for Tevelin by the river boat this morning with Azzesh.”

“By Azzesh, you mean the Tlazil?” he waved toward Azzesh.

“Yes, sir. That’s her.”

“So what happened in the street?”

“This man,” she said, pointing to the guard who survived, “tried to grab me in the street. The other one, the one I stabbed, came out of the alley.” Tlisli wished she had a convincing way to claim she hadn’t killed the guy, but she couldn’t figure out what story these judges would like to hear, so she stuck with the truth.

“Right after I stabbed him,” she continued, “the soldiers came and arrested us.”

“Has anyone checked what happened in the bar?”

“Yes,” said one of the soldiers. “Tlisli was definitely in the bar, and this man was seen approaching her.”

“So he’s been lying to us?”

“Yes,” said the soldier.

“Well,” said the chief judge, looking to either side, “I don’t see anything we need to take care of here. Tlisli is ordered released with no charges, and we recommend this police officer be fired.”

There was no gavel. He just waved them away.

Tlisli didn’t know what to do. She just stood there for half a minute. Then she felt Azzesh’s clawed hand on her arm as she was led away. As they approached the door, however, the entire room was called to attention. The outpost commander was standing in the door. The relaxed atmosphere disappeared.

(To be continued …)

 

Tlisli – The Edge of Civilization

(Continued from Tlisli – Ambushed part of the Tlisli Series)

Azzesh made an almost instant decision to use the boat left by the God-Emperor’s troops. It would be faster, and now that she was certain these were scouts for the Grand Empire of the Sun, she felt it was urgent to get word to the authorities in Tevelin that scouts of the Grand empire were this close.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

Tlisli was too small to be much use in rowing the boat, so Azzesh chose simply to drift with the current while guiding the boat from the rear. It was a rather well made boat in the style of the human tribes in the area. That meant a solid frame of wood with animal skins stretched over it, sealed with pitch taken from one of several species of trees. It was waterproof, easy to guide (if you knew how), and unlikely to break up, as some human boats were.

Following the river, it was less than a day before they were approaching the confluence, as it was known. Two rather substantial rivers, both flowing northward, joined into one. What was extraordinary about it was how close to the coast this took place. Another day of drifting downstream and they would be in Tevelin itself. But Azzesh knew the commander of the Inralin garrison at the fort and trading post here, known uncreatively as Fort Confluence, though it sounded much better in the Inraline language: Vorenvir, “fort joining two flowing waters.”

To be fair, one should consider that Azzesh had never told Tlisli that they would first arrive at an outpost of the city. It had never occurred to her to mention this because it was so obvious that there would be such. What would be more natural than to stop here and spend the night? There was both an excellent inn and a trader’s hostelry that provided more ordinary accommodations and a reasonable price. So perhaps her reaction can be justified.

“Wow!” said Tlisli. “Look at those wharves! I had never imagined that Tevelin would be so large!”

In fact, Tevelin was slightly smaller in population than Tlisli’s home town, but it was larger both in area and in the number of buildings to be found. In particular, few of the buildings in Tlisli’s home town were made of stone. A temple and the palace, yes, but even the guards lived in simpler buildings. The sight of stone piers extending into the river, capable of handling sea-going ships, of stone fortifications surrounding the outpost, and dozens of stone buildings suggested to Tlisli a city much larger than any she had known.

“Don’t be stupid!” said Azzesh. “This is merely an outpost. Yes, it is the largest outpost of Tevelin, but an outpost nonetheless. Tevelin itself is many times this size.”

At that Tlisli fell silent. She was strangely afraid, though she didn’t know what of. They tied up at the pier. Tlisli was silent and followed Azzesh. Even when one of the dock workers tried to talk to her, she just gestured. She wasn’t sure what to say. She knew she was dressed strangely, but that didn’t worry her so much. She was also surprised that all these humans–how long had it been since she’d seen another human other than the Grand Empire soldiers?–seemed to know and respect Azzesh.

She continued to follow Azzesh when she was led to the garrison commander’s office. Inside the stone buildings was even more of a shock to her than seeing so many of them from the outside. They were clean and really quite beautiful, with works of art scattered about. Tlisli couldn’t imagine how a garrison commander could be rich enough to own so many works of art. She expected to wait while Azzesh conducted her business. She also expected that both of them would have some time to clean up before they were taken in to see such an important official. If that happened what would she wear? But both she and Azzesh were directed into the commnder’s quarters, and when Tlisli hesitated to enter, Azzesh pushed her forward so hard she almost fell.

“Well if it isn’t the great Azzesh as I live and breathe!” said the commander, a human who looked like he might be just short of middle age. He was taller than any man Ttlisli had ever seen, and resembled the description of the gods. Tlisli thought she had never seen anyone so handsome.

“I see that nothing has diminished your firm grasp of the obvious,” said Azzesh. Tlisli cringed at both the familiarity and the disrespect. She also noticed a shift in Azzesh’s speech. She seemed to be speaking more formally. Her grammar was, perhaps more educated. Tlisli wasn’t sure.

“Indeed it hasn’t. I see you have acquired an assistant.” The way he said “assistant” seemed to imply something else, but Tlisli wasn’t sure what. There was just an edge of humor and perhaps contempt in the commander’s tone.

“Partner, commander, partner.”

“So you’re going to give her a full share of the proceeds?”

“Junior partner,” said Azzesh.

“Very well. That is, of course, up to you and her.”

“Indeed it is. Up to me. Not to her.”

Very junior partner,” the commander drawled.

“Very senior parner,” replied Azzesh, tapping her own chest with a claw, which produced a audible click.

“I stand corrected.” The commander snickered. “And what brings you to my office before you’ve even had time to clean up from the journey?”

“Clean up?” asked Azzesh. “Who needs to clean up?” She paused. “I arrived here in a boat.”

“That is surprising, considering your contempt for that mode of transportation, but hardly requires that I be informed.”

Tlisli heard the words, which were light, but she also noticed that there was increased tension in the commander’s voice. He heard more in the term “boat” than his words suggested.

“Indeed I have contempt for that mode of transportation. It prevents one from seeing and benefiting from large tracts of countryside. On the other hand, it is fast. This particular boat handles well in the river, though it rides high and requires attention to keep it headed in the right direction. Skins cover a framework of wood.”

Tlislli noted the increase in tension with each step in the description. “And you found this abandoned?” asked the commander.

“No, not precisely. It’s former owners ceased to have need of it. There were nine of them, and they wore symbols of their office and their emperor.”

“Nine? You killed nine Grand Empire scouts?”

“No, Tlisli here accounted for three, or perhaps four.”

The commander looked at Tlisli with new respect. “And this occurred where?”

“About a day’s drift up the eastern branch,” said Azzesh. “The boat is at the dock. I have no need of it. But if there should be a purchaser after you have examined it, a junior’s share, 2 of 5, should go to Tlisli here.”

“Very well,” said the commander, “We will examine the boat and its contents. I trust you have removed anything that is yours.”

“I have.”

“I’ll be in touch if I need anything more.”

“No doubt you will.”

Azzesh started to leave, and as she saw Tlisli still rooted to the spot, she grabbed her arm and got her moving. They left the commander’s office, then the building, and headed to the market.

In the market Azzesh sold a portion of the materials she had collected. When Tlisli asked her why she sold some, but not all, she laughed. “Think, small human,” she said. “What makes prices high?”

“When things are rare,” said Tlisli.

“So where will I get the best price for anything I carry?”

“Where it is rare.”

“Indeed. You have come a long way from the time I first considered cooking you for lunch, though you are still almost unimaginably stupid.”

Tlisli chose not to respond.

As they left the market, Azzesh handed Tlisli a small bag of coins. This is your share of what I have sold thus far. For the things collected after you joined me, you shall receive a share of the profits. For some, you must wait until I arrive in the city.”

“Thank you,” said Tlisli.

“Some ferocious warrior you are,” said Azzesh. But there was no sting in it this time.

Tlisli agreed to meet Azzesh at the docks in the morning where there was a commercial riverboat they could take to the city. Azzesh seemed to think that Tlisli could take care of herself in town. It was just in the wilderness that she needed a keeper.

Tlisli found that she really did have little trouble making her way around the outpost. Prices were somewhat higher than she was used to, at least measured by the weight of metal in the coins she used. She actually had a couple of gold coins. Gold was never used in ordinary commerce in her home town. She included a scabbard for her sword in her purchases and also bought a small knife.

Evening found her cleaned up and clothed in something reasonably civilized, or so she thought. She’d found it hard to get clothes that would be regarded as modest by her home town standards, but she simply couldn’t make herself wear the rather more revealing garments that seemed to be favored here. There were two distinct groups of people. Local folks who spoke a dialect closely related to her own, and the Inraline who were lighter skinned, generally taller, and seemed to be in charge. She was informed that Tevelin was a trading colony and seaport of the Inraline. Their colony was just the city of Tevelin itself, which was, people thought, perhaps 20 or 30 times the size of this outpost.

Tlisli was having a hard time comprehending that. With the money she had, she found that she could stay in the more comfortable inn, and its facilities were better than those at her father’s home. He had been one of the richest folks in town! But then she wondered how much it would cost to live for a period of time, so she found a place at the trader’s hostelry. She was surprised to find that nobody even questioned the idea of a woman traveling alone. The hostelry’s manager also told her, when she asked, that there was no restriction on carrying personal weapons within the outpost.

The feeling of having money gave her the courage to head to the bar in the evening–the one at the larger, more expensive inn. And that was where the trouble started. At one time Tlisli had considered herself an extremely beautiful and sexy young woman. Weeks of travel through the jungle and of measuring herself against Azzesh’s standard of usefulness had made her forget that. It turned out, however, that other than the odd scratch on her face, arms, and hands that hadn’t healed yet–and her more modest than average clothing covered most of those–her experience in the wilderness had not decreased her charm. She wasn’t yet ready for male company, however, and so other than accepting a couple of free drinks and talking she pushed away the various men who approached her.

It was no later than around 10 pm that she headed out to walk the few blocks to the hostelry. As she passed an alley just two blocks from the inn a man stepped out in front of her.

“Just where do you think you’re going little girl?” he asked.

“I’m going to the hostelry. Get out of my way,” she answered and tried to step forward.

He reached out to grab her arm. Almost without thinking she dodged. At the same time she noticed another man in the entrance to the alleyway. He was coming at her with fists. Neither was paying much attention to the sword at her side. She leaned back, forcing the second man to miss, while the first barely kept his balance. It was too bad, she thought, that she hadn’t gotten him off balance the other way, so that he’d walk into his companion’s fist. Still, they were both off balance for a moment, and she drew her sword.

One of the men apparently didn’t believe she knew how to use the sword, and stepped forward again, well into her reach. He seemed to be reaching for her sword arm. What he got for his pains was a nasty gash almost the length of his forearm. She recovered before he did and stabbed him squarely in the belly with her sword.

As she drew out the sword there was the sound of a whistle and a voice shouting “freeze.” Then they were all surrounded by soldiers. These were the Inraline troops, not locals. Tlisli could still calculate her odds, and they didn’t look good. In fact, it looked like she had no odds again. Only hours after again finding herself in a civilized town, she found herself under arrest.

(To be continued … for those who note that this episode was written two years after the previous one, let me note that the next episode, Tlisli – An Inraline Court, is already written and will appear on November 12, 2012.)

The Old Chapel near Matlock Bath

St. John the Baptist Chapel

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Masson hillside

Private chapel, built just before 1900 by the Arts and Crafts inspired architect Sir Guy Dawber. It was never consecrated and is now maintained by the Friends of Friendless Churches and sadly is only open on Heritage open days.

© Copyright Phil Berry and licensed for reuse under this

In October of 1999 I was engaged to be married. At 42 years of age I was acquiring a ready-made family all in one move. Over the years, that family has grown to include nine grandchildren. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The wedding was planned for November 28, Thanksgiving weekend, but in October I was headed to Europe. For the most part I was going to be traveling with a group of speakers offering revival services to various Methodist churches in England. I was kind of the junior member of the team, but in many ways that made it more fun. Friends told Jody, my wife to be, that I was getting cold feet. Otherwise why would I run off to Europe for three weeks that close to the wedding?

My story isn’t about the portion of the trip that was in England. In the middle of the trip, I was to leave the group, fly to Germany, and speak at a conference there. Then I’d return and join my group. I separated from the group in the town of Matlock, and was left with a day on my own before taking the bus back to London where I would fly out to Frankfurt.

I spent that day walking and looking for spiritual encouragement for the days ahead. I’m not a good traveler. I’m not that good at encountering new situations. I was quite comfortable being the junior member of a substantial team and wasn’t all that happy to be heading off for several days on my own.

I had been told by someone that there was a chapel near Matlock Bath, which is just south of Matlock, and so I walked that way. I was in much better shape in those days! Just looking at the map as I prepared to write this story made me tired. I asked about the chapel a couple of times and nobody seemed to know.

One of the things an American needs to learn about Europe is that “old” doesn’t precisely mean the same thing there. A century or so old is “old” here. I attend the oldest Methodist church in Florida, founded in 1822, in a building constructed in 1908-1910. This is a decently old building around here, but it’s a thing of yesterday by European standards. (I studied a good deal of ancient near eastern history, so I was acquainted with “really old,” but the intermediate level in Europe hadn’t really hit me.)

Finally, as I was following my map back from Matlock Bath toward Matlock, I came across a chapel. In preparing to write this post I looked it up on the map and found a picture. I don’t always trust my memory, but both the location and the appearance of St. John the Baptist’s Chapel in Johns Road match my memory of the place. I’m glad to see that since that time it has been designated a Listed Building.

At the time I couldn’t get in, and it was not in great repair. Again, it appears that some work has been done on it, which is noted in the Wikipedia article linked above. Below the chapel on the road there was some water leaking and running under (I believe) Johns road. The view in the picture with the Wikipedia article is precisely the direction from which I approached. Seeing the water coming from below the closed chapel, I suddenly felt God’s presence. You can call me crazy, but I knelt down and splashed the water on my head and felt incredibly refreshed. In that most unlikely place I had found the encouragement I needed.

For me the chapel was as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow. It may be a thing of yesterday by English standards, but it was worth the walk to me. I don’t suppose it will become a major tourist attraction. But the importance of a place and experience is, in most ways, a matter of perspective.

(This was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – old. Unlike what I usually write for the carnival, this story is true, as best as I recall.)

 

The New Ornate Cathedral

“I want an ornate cathedral, one suitable to my rank,” said the Duke.

Pierre Otzmann tried to keep his eyes from wandering around the room, surely a sign of disrespect since he should be listening to his duke, but the walls were covered with paintings of cathedrals, including the great cathedral from the imperial capital. They weren’t very good paintings. Rather, they were the sort of cheap art that one could buy from a tourist stand in the street. They weren’t displayed properly either. They were just sort of slapped up on the wall.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of persons, places, or events to anything in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry Neufeld

Otzmann was an architect. He liked order.

The duke cleared his throat ominously.

“Yes, your grace. I understand.”

“You’ll have 30,000 universals to accomplish this. You are the best architect in my duchy. You will not fail me in this commission.” Otzmann’s heart sank. A universal was a small silver coin, the standard for imperial exchange. Just the semi-skilled laborers for the project would cost him around 6,000, and that was if he could get the project done efficiently. With only 24,000 for the artists, materials, and skilled labor? Not a chance!

Again the duke cleared his throat.

“Yes, your grace,” said Otzmann. “I will prepare plans for your approval.” What else could he say?

“You will not,” said the duke. This brought a look of surprise to Otzmann’s face. Very briefly. “What you will do is block off the site of the new cathedral with a high wall. Then you will build this cathedral within that wall. I will not see it until it is completed.” This was a long speech for the duke.

After a long pause, he continued. “I cannot decide what my cathedral should look like. I have seen all the major cathedrals of the realm. I know they are all better than mine. Their appearance brings respect to the rulers who commissioned them. Mine brings me snickers. You will create for me a cathedral of which I can be proud, one that will bring me honor and glory. You are the most talented man I know. You will do this for me. Fail at your peril!” The duke’s look matched his final words.

Otzmann went home to his workshop. He tinkered with paper and drafting tools. He looked at the ceiling and thought. Nothing came to him.

He commissioned the wooden wall that would be high enough to keep the duke from seeing the cathedral as it was being built. He wondered how he would keep the workers from talking, but he decided there would be time enough to worry about that later. Right now they could only talk about an empty city block!

About a week after he had received the commission, Otzmann decided to visit the town’s current cathedral, the one the duke thought was such a disgrace. He had intended to pray, but nothing came to mind, so he just sat in a pew. As he watched a woman came into the sanctuary. He couldn’t tell her age, but she was clearly poor. He knew it was not polite, but he kept watching her. She didn’t seem to notice. She dropped some coins in the offering box. She lit a candle. She knelt down on an old, worn kneeling rail to pray. He had to move a bit to see her face, but as she knelt, her face lit up and it looked like years fell off her. Finally, she got up and left, showing no sign that she had ever noticed Otzmann.

“I don’t know about honor,” thought Otzmann, “but there’s glory for you. That woman’s face shows the real glory of a cathedral. Now if I can just catch that in stone …”

It was still a couple of weeks before Otzmann went to the building site. He threatened all the workers with hanging if they told anyone what was going on. He did so on the authority of the duke. He was certain the duke would back him up. If he asked for another 100 universals, he would doubtless be denied. The neck of one of the workers? No problem!

The workers believed him.

The duke was happy to see work going on. He wondered why there was some work in the new cathedral when he went on one of his rare visits, but he didn’t argue. He had, after all, ordered his most creative subject to accomplish a mission, and people accomplished those missions given them by their duke. Well, or bad things happened to them, that is.

The big day came. The new cathedral was finished. The duke was to be given a tour of the new building before the church took it over and consecrated it.

Otzmann led the duke into the enclosure. The duke had been able to see the a couple of towers toward the front of the cathedral over the wall. They looked pretty plain to him, but he supposed that they would look ornate when connected with the remainder of the building.

The duke had never suffered such a shock in his life as the one he felt when he saw his new, ornate cathedral. It was drab. It was ordinary. It looked like pieces of other buildings around his duchy. He walked into the nave. He looked around the inside. There was stained glass in the windows, yes, but the designs were simple, almost childish. The pews were made of local wood. They were well built, but very ordinary looking. The altar was carved and decorated, yes, but again it was very simple work.

The kneeling rails looked like they must have come from the old cathedral. They were old, smooth, worn.

The duke was coming out of his shock, and becoming enraged. Otzmann thought to himself how much easier it was to think that if he was going to disappoint the duke, he might as well do it thoroughly, when there was no disappointed duke right there working up a good rage.

Then the duke appeared to physically take control of his temper. He turned to Otzmann. “You’re the best architect in my duchy,” he said. “Tell me. Is this the best my duchy can produce?”

“May I have a few moments to tell you about this cathedral first?” asked Otzmann.

Reluctantly the duke nodded.

“You wanted a cathedral to bring you honor and glory, one you could be proud of. You had pictures of the great cathedrals of the empire, and I knew you wanted something like them. So if your anger falls on me once I have explained myself and this building, you know that I did understand.” It was a bold statement. The duke appreciated boldness. In measure. Rarely.

So I asked myself what a cathedral is for, and how it might best be made truly ornate. I got my answer when a woman prayed in the old cathedral.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed the Duke. “Women pray every day in every cathedral and misbegotten chapel of my duchy. There’s nothing special in that!”

“Perhaps, your grace, you need to look with the eyes of an artist. If I might show you …”

Otzmann led the duke to the outside wall of the church. Do you see these stones? Every one, you can see, has a name inscribed on it.”

“More like ‘scratched’ you mean.”

“Well, some are better at inscribing than others. Each stone comes from a cathedral or a chapel somewhere in your duchy. The stones were chosen by the people and sent here. Each piece of glass was made by a separate glassblower. Well, there weren’t enough for each piece, but every known glassblower in your realm is represented here.

“The designs were each made by the children of a different school in your realm. No artist outside of your duchy contributed anything. The altar was built here in the capital, but then travelled around the country as various people I chose added something to the carvings. The altar cloths and vestments were sewn in some of your smaller villages.”

“How did you keep all this secret?” asked the duke.

Otzmann refrained from noting that the duke could easily miss an earthquake provided it happened more than a block or so from his castle. “I threatened them with death, but in the end, I don’t think that mattered. I think they just wanted to surprise you.”

The duke looked almost thoughtful, a look that nobody could recall  him having before.

“Each piece was prayed over and consecrated in the town or village it came from. I just fitted them into the resulting church.”

“And for this you spent my 30,000 universals?” asked the Duke.

“No,” said Otzmann. “Nobody would accept payment. I haven’t touched your fund. Your people have given you your cathedral.” He wanted to add, “And God gave you such people,” but he didn’t think that would be as well received.

“I don’t know what to think,” said the duke, in a rare moment of sincerity. “I think I will not have you hung. How could I? But I have no idea how to explain this cathedral to my peers.”

I’d tell them they should be fortunate enough to have such an ornate cathedral, thought Otzmann. But he didn’t say it.

((This story was written for and submitted to the one day at a time blog carnival – ornate.)