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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.)

Find the True Source

In the southeastern portion of the Enzar continent there is a great river, known in Enzar as the Ygulanor, but to local people as the Ig, or perhaps the great Ig. It flows south, and it’s mouth is a major port. For around 4,000 kilometers from its mouth it is navigable. It has its source somewhere in the huge mountain range that splits this portion of the continent. That somewhere is not generally known. Wherein lies our tale.

There was a very wise man who lived along the lower reaches of the Ig. We’ll use the shorter name. Those Enzar are so boring with their long, multi-syllable, unpronounceable names. One day three young men came to the wise man and asked him what they thought was a rather simple question. They all met with him at once, because the very wise man, being wise, only met with people at certain times. Otherwise he would have done nothing but answer questions, which would be no fun. Even wise men have to have fun.

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

So the three young men found themselves together, and found that they had one question. Surely there would be one answer.

They asked the wise man this: “How should one go about acquiring wisdom?”

The wise man looked at the three young men, and realized they were very different. He didn’t think the answer to the question would be the same for all three. In fact, he was pretty sure the one on his right was never going to attain wisdom at all, and the one in the center was at best a coin toss. But they were unlikely to accept that wisdom might be attained in different ways, and might even take to fighting over different answers.

So after some thought he said, “He who would attain wisdom must first seek the true source of the Ig.” Then he fell silent. He refused to comment further. He made shooing motions with his hands to indicate they were to leave.

The three young men did so.

The first young man, who had been on the wise man’s right, went to the library in the great cosmopolitan city that graced the mouth of the Ig. He found there a book detailing the geography of the river, as far as it was known. In the book it said simply that it was rumored that one explorer had tracked the Ig to its source in the mountains to a point where water spurted out of a large whole in a cliff. This first young man looked at that statement, and decided that the person who wrote the book was very smart, and had written the book many years before, and thus doubtless was correct, or at least correct enough. He put down the book and went on his way. He didn’t feel much wiser, though he did congratulate himself on his wisdom in going no further, and thus saving himself much time, money, and effort.

The second young man, who had been in the center, read the same book, but he wondered if the rumor was true. He wanted to be wise, and so he decided to pursue this question a bit further. He hired a boat, some guards, and a river guide and began to follow the river. Soon he passed the navigable portions but he was determined, and his expedition continued on foot. They had to fight bandits and tribesmen. But after many months of travel and of making what he hoped was the proper choice of various tributaries (and having been wrong a couple of times), he arrived at the great cliff. There was a veritable river of water flowing out of the cliff in what was clearly the source of the Ig.

He was a bit disappointed that he had merely confirmed what he had found in the book, but he also realized that he had learned many skills, including fighting and how to lead people in hard circumstances. He had also found a number of ways in which he could make money from his knowledge of these regions. So he headed back to the big city to put his plans into action. He wasn’t sure he was wiser, but he most certainly was richer. He was fairly sure he was richer than he might ever have managed to become simply by doing business in the city, so he was satisfied.

The third young man read the same book. Having read the book, he also wanted to know whether what the book said was true. So he followed the second young man up the river. He had taken a bit more time on his research, so he actually met the second young man when he was returning from the source.

“You don’t need to go further,” said the second young man to the third. “The source is indeed water flowing from a cliff just as the book said.”

“Thank you!” said the third young man. Then he and his guards and porters made camp for the night, along with the second young man and his guides and porters.

During the night, he kept considering the situation. He couldn’t quite get comfortable.

In the morning he told the second young man, “I think I’ll still go and look at this water coming from a cliff. The wise man said, ‘the true source of the Ig.’”

“Suit yourself,” said the second young man. He had plenty of things to pursue during his own lifetime, however long he managed to live.

So the third young man continued the trek. When he got to the cliff he saw the water coming out of the rock, and he asked himself, “Where does the water come from that is coming out of the cliff?”

He set about climbing the cliff, which was close to 1000 meters high. He nearly fell to his death twice, and two of the guards who were brave enough to go with him actually did fall, at which point two more guards abandoned him as well.

But finally he was at the top of the cliff. Above the cliff there was a dry plateau. Now he truly wondered where the water came from. He travelled for many days across the plateau. He was nearly out of water when he came to the foot of some mountains that were even higher. He found there a tiny stream that came out of the mountain. From it he refilled his water jugs. He tried to follow the stream, but it disappeared into the ground, but that was not nearly enough water to provide the source of the Ig. So he continued to travel along the base of these new mountains. Stream after stream came down to the plain and then disappeared underground.

He followed some of the streams backwards into the mountains, but he soon realized they did not meet there either. Each of the streams had its source in a spring, flowed through the mountains, often having small tributaries of its own, and then the streams disappeared under the dry plateau. Then suddenly it struck him.

There was no true source of the Ig. It was like an explosion of enlightenment in his mind.

Of the three young men, only this third one ever returned to thank the very wise man. There came a day when the very wise man tired of answering questions, and he invited this third young man to take his place.

“I want to be replaced by someone who knows the true source of the Ig,” he said.

Condemned by the Gracious Governor

The storyteller, as usual, seemed to start in the middle of the tale …


When Perd fell on his face in front of the governor, he had little hope. It was his second time to appear in this position, and what hope did he have of getting clemency? He had promised to reform, to learn a skill, and to get a job, but he had done none of those things. It had seemed much easier to steal. What’s more, he thought he had learned a lesson the last time. No, not the lesson he was supposed to learn. He thought he knew how not to get caught.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between persons, places, things, or events and those in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

Now he found himself sentenced to death for a large robbery in which he had seriously injured a man with his knife. And here he was again, on his face, in front of the governor.

The governor was known as a gracious man. In fact, he was not required to see every person who was sentenced to death before allowing the sentence to be carried out. He could just sign the death warrants, or even allow a secretary to do it for him. But he disliked seeing people beheaded, and he sought every way to prevent it, especially for people who had been sentenced for something other than murder. The law might allow the sentence for someone who had merely threatened the life of another, or done injury that might have led to death, but the governor didn’t like it.

The governor remembered Perd.

“Your honor commuted a previous sentence of death against this man,” droned the pardons secretary. He continued with the particulars.

When the pardons secretary had finished, the prosecutor spoke. “The defendant Perd has despised your honor’s grace given to him before. He has proven himself unworthy of your mercy. He is a threat to the province which you govern by the king’s leave.” The prosecutor mentioned the king, because he hoped that the governor would be afraid. The prosecutor was known to have connections in the distant capital. It would be impolitic to mention those connections directly, but they crept out through the pauses in the prosecutor’s speech.

The governor motioned to the pardons secretary who turned to Perd and asked in a low tone of voice, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” He used a low tone of voice because he couldn’t see any reason why anyone should listen to someone with Perd’s record.

From his position with his face on the paving stones, Perd just said, “Mercy, your honor, mercy!” Then he was silent.

The prosecutor smiled. The pardons secretary didn’t smile (he didn’t really know how), but he managed to look satisfied. No sad story to touch the gracious governor’s heart and produce a pardon or even a commutation.

“You beg for mercy,” said the governor, “and mercy you shall have.” Shock swept through the audience chamber. The prosecutor opened his mouth to protest, but then he saw the determined look on the governor’s face.  Connections in the capital were all well and good, but the capital was two weeks journey to the south, and the governor was right here. The prosecutor decided it would be better to be silent. He could include a note in his next letter to friends and family, perhaps starting a rumor that would weaken the governor’s position with his superiors.

“I place before you a choice,” the governor continued, allowing this idea to sink in. “Out in the courtyard there is a headsman, with his axe sharpened. He is quite a good headsman, and will doubtless remove your head efficiently and with minimum pain. Considering that you could be executed by less pleasant methods, you should consider this a good option. On the other hand, I have a friend who is travelling north into the wilderness to search for gold and precious stones. He will probably be travelling for two or more years. He is a skilled man, and I doubt you will escape him. If you should think of escape, or of doing him harm, you should be aware that I give him my blanket permission to kill you, with no questions asked. If you are more of a burden on him than a help, then he can kill you just for that. Should you return from this trip alive, you will be granted my pardon and your freedom.”

The prosecutor had lost his smile when the governor first mentioned mercy, but now he had it back. The look on the pardons secretary’s face had gone from a carefully practiced strict neutrality to one of satisfaction. Perd did not look like the sort of person who could survive one of those trips to the north. The governor was clearly being extraordinarily cruel by providing this choice between two deaths.

The governor looked at Perd, who was too frightened to look up. The mountains immediately to the north were known to be a good source of many precious things, but they were also known to be a place of incredible danger. The explorers and miners who travelled in that area were known to be the toughest and nastiest people anywhere. He could very easily endure months or even years of agony, and still be killed, or die accidentally, before he could return home. A clean beheading almost sounded attractive!

Almost! But not quite. The alternative sentence did keep him alive, and offered some hope, however little. Perd thought, was better than none.

“Your honor, I will go with your friend,” said Perd. He almost thanked the governor for his mercy, but under the circumstances he thought that wouldn’t sound sincere. Nobody could expect him to be thankful for a slow death instead of a fast one.

He was taken in chains to the explorer, name Ka’at. He was left in chains in an unfurnished room overnight. The next morning Ka’at dragged him out into the courtyard where he saw two fully packed mules. Ka’at was in his travelling gear as well. He wondered if he would make the entire journey in chains. Before they went out of the city gates, however, Ka’at took him to a blacksmith’s shop, where the chains were removed, but replaced by a set that would handicap his movement less, but nonetheless make him much slower than Ka’at. The latter looked very fit and quick as well.

So Perd began his march into the mountains still in chains, albeit lighter ones. He was still expected to work and carry a pack. He wanted to be angry because of the pack, but as he started to open his mouth to complain, he realized that the pack Ka’at was carrying himself was substantially larger than his, and heavier even if one considered the weight of the chains. So he thought better of that complaint.

He knew that those who mined gemstones up in these mountains, and often searched for treasure from ancient times, were considered dangerous and uncouth. Ka’at, on the other hand, hardly said a word during the day. In the evening, he would make comments on what Perd had done during the day, and what he should do. He’d always end his comments by saying something like, “You’ve been more of a help than a burden today,” or “You’ve been more of a burden than a help, but I’ll let it pass,” or sometimes “You’ve been about as much trouble as help.”

Since he thought his life depended on it, Perd paid attention, and tried to do the things that made him more of a help than a burden. These things involved habits he had never learned before, such as learning how to cook a meal rather than expecting someone else to do so for him, how to mend and sew, how to care for the mules, and eventually how to hunt. By the time Ka’at gave him a hunting bow, he was so far into the mountains and so uncertain of how one would get home, that the thought of killing his master never occurred to him.

Then came the day when Ka’at removed the chains. He didn’t lecture about it. He just called Perd over, and with a few quick strokes of hammer and chisel, removed the chains. Again, partly because he had no idea where to go, and partly because he was now in the habit of doing the day to day chores, Perd didn’t think seriously of running. When he thought about his situation, he was amazed that he didn’t hate Ka’at. He’d assumed he would hate someone who had the power of life and death over him. Despite his pleas for mercy, deep inside himself he had hated the governor as well. Who was he to have Perd’s life in his hands?

But Ka’at worked hard than Perd could ever manage, even though Perd was finding himself stronger and stronger. He was doing work that only weeks before he had no idea how to do. Now it came easily. And they were finding gems as well. It took a lot of digging, but as the bags on the mules became lighter and lighter as they used up their supplies, they were being filled again with valuable items. Looking at a Ruby that he and Ka’at had just dug up, Perd suddenly realized why such stones commanded such high prices. He knew there was nowhere inside his homeland where one could find them. The trip would pay well, but there were few people who could survive this. He knew that without Ka’at’s knowledge, particularly of the wild animals, they would both have been dead.

Then it happened. It could happen to anyone, no matter how skilled. It had happened to Perd earlier in the trip, and Ka’at had been there to save him. But this time, it was Ka’at who stepped on the wrong stone, which broke off, and in turn loosened others, resulting in a fall. Ka’at ended up hanging over a gorge from a single small tree. He was in Perd’s power.

Instantly, the thought came to Perd’s mind. If he just let Ka’at go, he would be free. He need never return home to where he was known. He could find another place to live. But he rejected the thought instantly. It wasn’t until Ka’at was back on the trail that Perd realized that it hadn’t been his need of a guide to get home that stopped him from just letting Ka’at die. No, he’d suddenly realized that he liked the older man and didn’t want to see him fall. Yes, he’d realized how his sentence could end with Ka’at’s death, but he’d rejected it. It was an odd feeling. He couldn’t recall doing anything for anyone before just because he liked them.

Ka’at, as usual, was quiet. He just nodded his thanks. That evening he said simply, “You were a great help to me today.” Was that a twinkle in his eyes? With Ka’at, who could tell?

The day came when Ka’at and Perd rode back into town. They looked much the worse for wear. To Perd’s surprise, Ka’at led them straight to the palace. To Perd’s even greater surprise, they were admitted to the governor’s private audience chamber. Ka’at walked up to the governor’s desk and spread out the rubies they had found. They had a few other things, but that was more than 90% of the value of what they had brought out of the mountains.

“They’re all there,” said Ka’at, spreading the rubies out on the desk. He divided them up, two thirds in one pile and another third in another.

He looked at Perd and pointed to the smaller pile. “Take them,” he said. Perd knew from their discussions in the mountains that an assistant such as himself, always supposing the man was free and not condemned to work for nothing, would normally get five or ten percent of the take they had helped find. This was a junior partner’s share.

Perd just looked at the stones.

“Take them,” said the governor. “You’ve fulfilled the terms I set.”

 


“Now tell me,” said the storyteller, “Did the governor act graciously? If so, in what way? Which of his actions were actions of grace, and which not? Should he have been known as the gracious governor?”

 

When the Orange Sky Gleamed

“I’m going to tell you a story about the time when the orange sky gleamed,” said the old man.

The children gathered around the fire moved closer. Some of them leaned forward so that they could hear the story. One of the older children wasn’t quite as interested.

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

“The sky is blue in the day, and black at night. There are clouds. Sometimes they turn orange in the evening, at sunset. But the sky is never orange and it doesn’t gleam.” He was just into his teens and pretty smart. He wasn’t going to be awed by eerie sounding opening lines to old men’s stories.”On this day, it was orange, and it gleamed,” said the old man. Before the confident kid could interrupt him again, he continued. “We got up in the morning and there was just a bit of orange in the southern sky. It was a bad omen.” The confident kid rolled his eyes.

“The shaman said it was a bad day. ‘When there’s orange in the south, stay under your roof,’ he told us. But the chief wouldn’t listen. He needed to get a caravan going to pick up gold, gems, and various items of bronze, iron, and even steel from the south. The shaman told him again not to go.

“‘How long should I wait?’ asked the chief. ‘Until the orange sky no longer gleams,” said the shaman. But the chief wouldn’t listen, especially when the shaman wouldn’t tell him how long the gleaming would take to go away. So he sent out the caravan anyhow. In fact, he went with it. I begged to go. I was about your age.” He pointed to the confident kid. “I was just as stupid too. But they wouldn’t let me go.

“Days went by. Almost the entire sky to the south turned orange, and it gleamed, sometimes with white, sometimes with various colors, but always with an orange tint. To the north, over the sea, the sky was pretty much clear. It was windy, but the whether was not too bad. Nobody had an explanation for the time when the orange sky gleamed.” The confident kid rolled his eyes again. He wasn’t going to be taken in by the repetition of the eerie phrase.

Other children weren’t so jaded. “What happened?” they asked eagerly, leaning forward to hear the old man’s answer.

“A week went by, and the orange started to fade from the southern sky. But the caravan didn’t come back.” The old man paused for a moment and pretended to be falling asleep. The children started to ask what happened next. They were acquainted with waiting for a caravan to return. It was how their town made its money. But they couldn’t remember a time when a caravan just didn’t return.

“Another week went by and the sky was completely back to normal. But the caravan still didn’t return. The shaman didn’t say ‘I told you so,’ but one could see it on his face. It was really quite obscene to be so happy about a disaster. The chief’s son, who was in charge in his absence still thought the caravan might have been delayed. Maybe the load hadn’t been ready. But after three weeks it was hard to pretend that there wasn’t something terribly wrong.

“So the chief’s son sent out a patrol to look for the caravan. They rode horses, so they moved faster than a caravan. They couldn’t find any sign of the caravan. They did find that the sand dunes looked somewhat different. The men were used to the sands moving about some with the winds, but this was like they were traveling through a different country. Finally they arrived at the foot of the southern mountains where the town was where they usually picked up their loads.”

He paused again and pretended to be falling asleep.

“What did he find there?” asked an eager voice.

“Oh what?” The old man pretended to wake up suddenly.

“What did he find? Did he find the caravan? Did they get back home?”

“So many questions!” said the old man. “Well, no, they didn’t find the caravan. In fact, they didn’t find anything at all.”

“You mean, except the town,” said the confident kid, not sounding quite as confident as he had before.

“No, there was no town there. They could see the mountains rising up from the sand. They had all the landmarks. But where they were there was nothing but sand.”

The confident kid made a dismissive motion with his hand, got up, and walked away. The other kids were horrified. They demanded another story, claiming they couldn’t possibly go to sleep now.

The confident kid grew up, and he never forgot the story. He became a caravan merchant himself. New towns had grown up at the northern edge of the mountains. They bought things from the miners in the mountains as they always had. Caravans from the northern coastal towns came and carried them across the strip of desert land between the mountains and the coast and then sold them to trading ships. The winds rearranged the sand a bit, but not so much that one couldn’t find one’s way.

Then one day the confident kid sat down around another campfire and heard another story. It was an old man from the mountains. He also told about the time when the orange sky gleamed. His story was a bit different. The gleaming started to the east and built quickly. He described a bit of fire in the sky to the south as well

“What did everyone do?” asked the young man who had once been the confident kid.

“Oh, nothing in particular. We just stayed inside for a few days mostly,” said the old man. Then he paused, expectantly. But the confident young man wasn’t going to ask. Finally he couldn’t resist. He had to finish his story. “After the sky cleared we took our next load north to the town at the base of the mountains, but the town was gone.”

The confident young man was startled. He thought it had been an old man’s tale, but here was another tale to match. He wasn’t sure it was the same town even, but the stories matched so closely.

It took him some weeks to find someone who knew where that town at the base of the mountains had been. The current town was in an oasis which had a spring. It was entirely a new town. The elder who finally admitted to remembering where the old town had been could only tell him it was no more than a mile or so off to the east of the new one.

“But the town is lost, young man,” he said. “There’s no reason to worry about it. It’s buried in the sand.”

That was precisely what the young man thought. “Who owns that land?” he asked the elder.

“Owns a piece of the desert?” said the old man slowly. “Well, nobody.”

“So the confident young man went back to the coast to hire some men. Nobody was very interested in his plan, but he was able to find enough people who needed the work. He took them back to the place where the village had disappeared, and set them to digging. It required a month of digging.

The townspeople were delighted with all the money they were paid for food and water for the men digging in the desert. It never occurred to them to question the motives of the crazy man from the coast. But after a month he found what he wanted. There was the town, and there was the bodies of people, hidden in houses and covered in sand. He found even more than he expected. Though there was no way he could identify the people involved, he could tell there had been a caravan in town, and their cargo was well preserved under the sand.

The confident kid who had grown up into the confident young man became quite a rich man. But he never told the townspeople what he had found. His workers were more than happy to share the wealth and head for home.

Every few months after he returned home he would go to the great campfire in the town square and tell children a story. It was often the story of when the orange sky gleamed. And then he’d tell them the moral of the story. “Pay attention to the stories your elders tell. They might just have something important in them to help you grow up and become rich.”

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

There was a new town by the stream near the base of the mountain