Farmer Jack’s Arsenal

“Old Jack has quite an arsenal,” said one villager knowingly to another.

The stranger sitting in front of the village pub perked up. This was the sort of thing he wanted to know.

“Who,” he asked, “is Jack?”

“Farmer Jack,” said one of the villagers.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

“Yes,” said the other. “We call him Old Jack or Farmer Jack.”

“What do you mean that he has quite an arsenal?” asked the stranger. It was a risky question. People often reacted badly to someone who was too curious about their stock of weapons.

But the two villagers just laughed. “You’d really have to see it,” said one. The other just snickered.

So the stranger set about discovering just what kind of an arsenal it was that this Farmer Jack had. If his boss was to gain control of this village and the surrounding farms, he would certainly have to get rid of any arsenals that might be in the area.

That evening he asked a few of the people in the pub about Farmer Jack’s arsenal. He wanted to do it subtly, but it was rather difficult. “I heard there’s a Farmer Jack around here who has quite an arsenal, ha ha, do you know anything about it?” That sounded rather silly, but the reactions he got just weren’t normal. Some people looked at him as though he was crazy. Others laughed. A couple of them finally explained that in the mountains behind Farmer Jack’s farm there was a cave which was filled with weapons. What weapons? Oh, swords, crossbows, crossbow bolts, maybe even a ballista or two. One never knew what Farmer Jack might collect.

He thought he noticed a number of people trying to conceal their faces. He thought it might be that they were laughing, but he set that aside. What could be funny about a cache of weapons? That was one of the things his boss would want to know. He’d want to grab the arsenal first.

Over the next few days he tried to watch people as they went about their business, especially as they went to surrounding towns. But he never saw what he was looking for. He wanted to see some town militia or maybe even one or two people going and getting weapons or putting them back there in the arsenal in the hills behind Farmer Jack’s farm.

So he sent in a report to the boss and the boss sent a couple more scouts to the town. It was important to locate this arsenal before he made his move. His men would be spread thin, and even one well-equipped militia might be able to bring down his entire plan to control the area.

The new men actually scouted the area behind Farmer Brown’s farm. They looked through the hills, but they didn’t find any weapons, nor did they find anywhere that weapons might have been stored, nor did they see a single person carrying weapons one way or another. Well, except for one hunter who was using his hunting bow to hunt deer. They thought the hunter hadn’t seen them. It was important that nobody realized they were looking for the arsenal. That would just make people start to believe they were planning something, and that would be dangerous.

Finally the boss decided to make his move. In order to make certain that everything was safe, they decided to send the majority of their troops to secure Farmer Jack and to close off the path to the arsenal. It wouldn’t do, after all, to let people go get weapons from there.

They swept across the farm, surrounded the house, and grabbed Farmer Jack. The captain in charge of the operation congratulated himself on his success. There wasn’t so much as an injury, provided one didn’t count Private Smythe, who had turned his ankle in a post hole in one of the fields.

Farmer Jack was an old man. The captain thought he might be 80 or 90 years old. “Where’s your arsenal?” he asked. “We want your arsenal!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Farmer Jack.

The captain slapped him a couple of times, but one of his lieutenants pointed out that with such an old man, a slap might even be fatal. So they just told Farmer Jack that he might as well tell them, because they’d be there until they figured out where the arsenal was. They’d find it eventually, so why not make things easy?

But Farmer Jack seemed uninclined to make things easy. He just sat in his big living room chair and thought. In the meantime, the captain’s men made a thorough search of the area for the arsenal or for any path that might lead the the arsenal. They didn’t find anything that wasn’t part of the ordinary farm equipment.

But at least, thought the captain, nobody else could find it either.

Just after dark they heard the sound of horse’s hooves on the path leading to the house. Such men as weren’t still searching for the arsenal prepared to stop the approaching horses. But what met them was a knight on his horse and with him several men-at-arms. If they’d all been there, they might have stood up to him, but as it was, they had no chance. The men surrendered quickly, and it was only minutes before the knight was in the house with Farmer Jack.

Now the captain was sure there was an arsenal, cleverly hidden. What else would make an obviously well-off and well-equipped knight show up at one very old man’s farm?

“Your plan, and your boss’s plan is finished,” said the knight. “I and my brothers in arms have seen to that.”

There was a long pause. Finally the captain couldn’t stand it. “I have to know,” he said. “Where is the arsenal?”

“The arsenal?” said the knight.

“Yes. Our spies reported that Farmer Jack had quite an arsenal.”

The knight stood staring at the captain for a long time. Then he started to laugh. He laughed long and hard. Finally he got control of himself. “You think there’s an arsenal around here?” he asked.

The captain nodded.

“Well, I suppose there is,” He reached out to shake the captain’s hand. Meet Farmer Jack’s arsenal,” he said. “Well, part of it, at least.”

The captain looked blank.

“Yes, I suppose I’ll have to explain.” He paused a moment. “You see, Farmer Jack has been living here for a long time. None of us are quite sure how old he is. Twenty years ago his wife died, and since then he’s lived on his own. Well, except for one thing. Any child or young person could find a meal in Farmer Jack’s house. They could find a job on the farm. And if they’d hang around long enough, Farmer Jack would teach them to read and write and the basics of handling farm tools, and yes, weapons. He was once a sergeant in the king’s army. He had so many of them that people took to calling them Farmer Jack’s arsenal.”

The knight turned to Farmer Jack. “I take it the current crop is safe,” he said.

“They’re out in the hills,” said Farmer Jack. “That’s where I keep my arsenal when there’s trouble.”

The knight looked back at the captain who still looked confused. “Don’t you get it, man?” he asked. “Half the government officials from here to the king’s court once found shelter here at this farm. We don’t talk about it, because Farmer Jack doesn’t like us to. He’s says it’s just what someone who has something ought to do. And yes, I said ‘we’, because I too learned which end of a sword was which right out there in that yard.”

“People took to calling us Farmer Jack’s arsenal, not because we might help him, but because there were so many of us. But you heard me say he–and his good wife–taught us to read and write. Not one in ten people up in these hills can read and write. Not one in twenty know even the basics of using a sword. So when we left here most of us made good. We had the skills.”

“So we really didn’t need to go after this farm at all,” said the captain.

“Oh, it didn’t really matter,” said the knight. “Farmer Jack sent word to several of us a couple of weeks ago. The kids noticed your spies searching the hills and got suspicious.”

“They said nobody had noticed them.”

“Doubtless they never noticed the kids. Nobody ever does. But they were the arsenal, in more ways than one.”

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

I Want Them to be Jubilant

It was a long way to the capital where the king lived, so Baron Jubal was pretty much the law in all his lands. Recent decades had not been nice to his neighbors, so he was, for practical purposes, lord of all he surveyed. He was feared. He was obeyed.

But he was not loved.

This really bothered Jubal. He thought he was a good baron. He took an interest in all aspects of his people’s lives. He was not merciful or kind, he knew, but he considered himself just. It didn’t matter who you were. If you stole something a second time, you were beheaded. He regarded this as only just. But he thought he deserved to be loved.

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

Each year on the anniversary of his accession to his holdings he held a celebration with a parade. He would appear to his subjects and speak to them. He would wave and accept their applause. Otherwise he did not appear in public. He didn’t think people needed to see him. He had subordinates to take care of such things. It was unfortunate for him that the day of his accession was the same as the day his father died. His father had been much beloved.

After the first year, Jubal was very dissatisfied. He called in the man who had been in charge of the celebration.

“I am much dissatisfied with the response to my appearance before the people,” he said.

“What would you like to see,” asked the manager.

“I would like the people to be happy to see me.”

“I think the people were happy. They are not very demonstrative people.” The manager said this, not because it was true, but because he was searching for any excuse that would work. The people had indeed been very cool toward their ruler.

“It’s not enough. I want them to be jubilant.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Since this was the first year, I will allow you to keep your job and your head.” One of the least endearing features of the baron was that he could say something like this as though he truly believed he was being generous. It wasn’t even dark humor. He really meant it. “See that things go better next year.”

The next year the manager talked to as many people as he could. He told them that the baron expected a more positive response, applause and shouts of joy, when he appeared. He suggested that the baron might be very angry if these were not forthcoming.

Unfortunately for him the people didn’t really believe the baron could do that much to everyone who was attending the parade, and they didn’t feel very thankful for having to go through checks by the barons guards, then standing in the sun for hours, and finally seeing the not very beloved face of their ruler. So they clapped and said “hoorah!” in an ordinary tone of voice. It was worse than silence.

The baron called the manager in and had him beheaded. Then he appointed another manager. The new manager was very motivated. He was aware of the fate of his predecessor.

When he gathered people for the event he told them that if there was not an adequate response when the baron made his appearance, he would see that one in every ten of them was beheaded. He added that he would have spies in the audience who would see who was not cheering and would make sure the quiet ones were first to lose their heads.

When the celebration came and the baron made his appearance, there was indeed a loud shout. There was cheering. People waved. At first Jubal was very happy, but then he noticed that people were not smiling. He was certain they were faking it.

He called in the manager.

“How did you get the people to cheer?” he asked.

At first the manager tried to lie, but soon the king got the tale.

“If you hadn’t tried to fake the response,” he said, “I would have mercy on you. But since you have tried to deceive me, you will die. And he had the new manager beheaded as well.

The rest of the baron’s servants avoided him for some time, but finally he set his sights on one of his guards and appointed him to manage the next year’s celebration. The guard tried to claim he was indispensable in his current position, but Jubal was having none of it. And again he presented his desire. “I want them to be jubilant,” he said.

The guard thought and thought as days turned into weeks. He couldn’t think of a way to make the crowd jubilant. But then he had an idea. At first he dismissed it. Could he carry it off? Would the people actually be that stupid? Yes, he thought they would be. In fact, if he did it right, they might not even have to be very stupid.

The day of the celebration came. It had been a hard year. Besides all of the normal hardships, there had been a crime wave. Instead of just the normal thefts by the hungry or the marginalized, there was a new factor. A criminal who killed and tortured as well as robbing and vandalizing. He was known only as “the murderer.” One or two of his supposed cronies had been caught and executed, but the man himself was elusive. There was a pretty good description of him. He liked to leave people alive to spread the terror. But nobody could lay hands on him. Three guard captains had lost their heads during the year because they had failed to catch this criminal.

What the people didn’t know when they arrived at the celebration was that “the murderer” had been caught by the baron himself. The manager of the celebration arranged a dramatic introduction of the baron, explaining how he had finally had to personally take over the search, and that it was only through is action that the murder had been caught. The people were so afraid of the bandits and of the murderer himself that they were prepared to believe anything as long as they could think that the attacks would cease. Their fear of the murderer overcame their coolness toward their ruler.

When the baron appeared, the crowds were truly jubilant. They were also jubilant when the man presented as “the murderer” was beheaded. He fit the description so well that nobody questioned that he was the right person.

The manager had correctly assessed the intelligence and observation skills of the people, but he had failed to consider the baron. So he nearly fainted at the look the baron gave him. It was a knowing smile.

“A very good plan,” said the baron. “The people were truly jubilant. I think some of them even love me.”

There was a long pause.

“But I think their memories are short. What are you going to do for next year?”

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time blog carnival, on the word “jubilant.”)

I Am Justice

“But I am Justice!”

“I think you misunderstood. I came to this town looking for justice. A rich man in my village robbed me, and I came here for justice.” The woman looked bewildered. Justice—for that was indeed his name—just looked stubborn.

“I’m Justice. People hear you wantin’ Justice, they call me. I’m Justice. What you want I do?”

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

“I want Justice!” she yelled. Then before Justice could frame his reply (he had been about to say “I am Justice” again) she got back on her donkey and started to ride toward home. She was nearly out of money. She couldn’t go any further. What’s more she was so disgusted with this joke that the townspeople had played on her, doubtless taking her for a rustic stranger, that she didn’t want to go further.

Justice wasn’t used to being left behind. Ever since he had started to grow into the muscular young man he was, he had been called to help with various problems. His mind wasn’t quick, though he wasn’t as stupid as he sometimes looked and acted. People joked about him. As the strongest man in town he was often in demand. “You want justice?” people would ask. “Just call him!”

So when this very troubled woman headed off down the road into the hills, Justice decided that he couldn’t leave things as they were. When people called him he was always able to help. It was like a law of nature in his mind. It never occurred to him that the reason he could always help was that people always called him to do things that required strength, like moving their furniture.

Nobody even noticed when Justice grabbed a bag, filled it with clothes, a few tools, and a little bit of food, and headed off down the road. They assumed he would be back sooner or later. He was a fact of life.

Five days later, Justice showed up in the tiny village of Marani. He settled himself in at the local inn and ordered ale. It was hard to miss Justice. In a room full of people he stood out. People were afraid of him. Not that he looked angry or made any threatening moves. It was just that he looked like he might carry off some of the furniture without noticing he’d done it, sort of like other people might pick up a coin.

It wasn’t long until someone asked him who he was and what he was doing there. “I’m Justice,” he said, “I here to help da lady.”

“What lady?” they asked. But Justice just kept his silence. The people thought he was being enigmatic, but the problem was that he didn’t know the lady’s name, nor did he know who it was who had robbed her.

By the next day the lady heard that Justice was in town. She didn’t go to see for herself. She didn’t want the Lord Mayor, as he styled himself, to realize she had asked for someone to come to town. Especially since she hadn’t.

By evening, however, the Lord Mayor got word that Justice had arrived in town. Justice, said his agents, was very large and muscular, and could doubtless carry away the inn on his shoulders should he choose to do so.

“Perhaps his presence here is just a coincidence,” said the steward.

“But he says he’s here to help the lady,” said one of the agents.

“It could be some other lady,” said the steward.

The Lord Mayor just looked at the steward, but his eyes said, “You idiot!” That was what he was thinking, because there really wasn’t any other lady that Justice could be here to help.

“If he wasn’t named Justice,” said another agent, “it might look different.”

“Yes, but he is,” said the Lord Mayor.

The next afternoon the Lord Mayor stopped in to see Justice. Justice seemed uninterested in the problems of ladies at the time, and just wondered if the Lord Mayor needed anything moved. The Lord Mayor concluded that Justice was very enigmatic, and was playing with him. The fact was that Justice was smart enough to realize he would need money if he was going to stay in the inn, and had already made quite a bit by moving large things for various people.

Next the Lord Mayor went to the lady and asked her, quite belligerently, whether she had asked Justice to come to town. She told him the truth, that the people in the town had sent her Justice when she asked for justice, and now that the young man had followed her here. The Lord Mayor laughed and laughed.

But when he got home he heard about Manny the pickpocket, and how Justice had broken his arm when he found it in someone else’s pocket. People were starting to say that justice had been done. By Justice.

Justice had no such plan. He just didn’t like to see people robbed or hurt. He hadn’t actually intended to break the man’s arm, but Manny had struggled so hard while failing to let go of the stolen purse, and Justice being as strong as he was, he accidentally broke Manny’s arm.

Perhaps there was more to this than he supposed, thought the Lord Mayor. So he told one of his agents to kill Justice. Maybe he was just a strong young man, but maybe not. Might as well be safe.

The agent spent all that evening looking for a chance to slip a knife into Justice, but he never really got a chance. Every time he got close enough he was somehow blocked. He was perfectly willing to do the deed in public. The Lord Mayor (as he styled himself, of course) would protect him. But he could never quite get into position. Justice was always turning to face him at just the wrong moment.

Now the Lord Mayor was really concerned. Could it be that this was an expert agent of the Baron, or perhaps even the Duke or the King? He needed to think of some way to do something about it, but what could he do? If the King, heaven forbid, was aware of his activities way out here in the wilderness, what else might he know?

He tried twice more to have Justice stabbed in the back. The second guy actually managed to swing his knife at Justice’s back, and cut him, but he just threw the attacker against the wall (a couple of broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder), and went about his business.

By this time the Lord Mayor was so worked up, he was convinced that an agent of the King was playing with him, and that it was only a matter of time until he was arrested, taken to the capital (so far away he wasn’t sure where it was), and doubtless beheaded.

After another quite day or two (ominously quiet, thought the Lord Mayor), he decided that his only option was to flee the town before he was taken. So he loaded most of his riches on a mule, and got on his best horse, and headed out of town early in the morning. What he didn’t realize was that Justice also went out for walks in the hills early in the morning. So as the Lord Mayor left town, there was Justice standing at the edge of the road, looking out over a valley.

Justice was just enjoying the view, but the Lord Mayor was certain that Justice was there waiting for him. He had one chance, he thought, and that was to push Justice over the endge of the cliff. The drop off wasn’t very high, but it would be high enough. He spurred his horse forward, intending to turn just as he hit Justice, and thus be rid of his problem.

But hearing a horse behind him, Justice stepped aside. The horse managed to stop right at the edge, but the Lord Mayor flew out into the air and with a scream fell to his death below.

Justice verified that the Lord Mayor was dead, then took his body, his horse, and the mule containing most of his riches back into town. The townspeople gathered around, and called the lady. She took the horse and the mule, and its load, and claimed the Lord Mayor’s house. It had all been stolen from her in the first place.

She made sure to reward Justice as well. “When they sent you to me, I thought they were playing a joke. But now I see they were right. You are justice.”

Yes, I am Justice,” said Justice. But he looked puzzled. He still had no idea what the lady wanted him to do.

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

 

Are You Sure You Don’t Want More?

Ferod stood in shock in front of the shrine. He’d distinctly heard the words.

“Are you sure you don’t want more?”

He didn’t really believe in the old gods. Nobody even seemed to remember the names of whatever god or gods this shrine might be dedicated to. But he had run out of money to pay for seed grain, and if he had no seed grain there would be no planting, then, of course, no harvest, and therefore no seed grain for next year either. So he came to the shrine and asked the gods, whoever they might be, for money to buy seed grain.

“No,” he said, inwardly cursing himself for responding to the imaginary voice. “I just want money for seed grain.”

He said this because he didn’t believe in the gods and didn’t suppose they were going to give him even that much. So why ask for more?

On his way home he tripped over a rock and fell into the ditch beside the path. As he was scrambling back out of the ditch he felt something smooth and hard. When he got back to the path he brushed the object off and found that it was a large silver coin, worth precisely the amount he needed to buy seed grain.

Stupid gods, he thought, making me fall in the ditch in order to find this pitiful coin. But at least it will buy me that seed grain.

Ferod’s farm went reasonably well for the next few years. He didn’t get rich, but he always had enough to feed his family, with seed grain left over for the next year.

Then his wife got sick. The village shaman performed rituals over her, but she didn’t get better. He applied all the folk remedies he could remember from his mother, but she only continued to get worse.

Then he remembered the shrine. He hadn’t been there since his prayer for the seed grain. He really didn’t believe the gods had provided the silver coin. Clearly it was just a coincidence. But it could hardly be less effective than rubbing his wife’s body with that noxious smelling green mixture he had simmering in a pot on the stove.

So he went back to the shrine. “I would like my wife to live longer,” he said.

“How much longer would you like her to live?” he thought he heard. What an imagination I have! he thought. Here I am holding a conversation with a pile of rocks.

But he answered just the same. “I’d like  her to live five more years,” he said. By then the children would be old enough to work in the fields, and she would be older than many women he could name. Yes, five years would do.

“Are you sure you don’t want more?”

He didn’t bother to answer. He felt too foolish. And besides, he didn’t believe the gods would do anything in any case.

But when he returned home, his wife had taken a turn for the better, and had thrown out the noxious smelling green stuff he had been cooking on the stove. So things got much better.

Better, that is, until five years later his wife fell from a ladder, broke her neck, and died. Ferod was too grieved and angry to notice that it was five years to the day from his visit to the shrine.

Still, the children were older, and were able to work in the fields, so life went on. It was lonelier. Much of the life went out of the farm. But they kept on living.

Then came the great drought. Not only was Ferod’s farm dry and unproductive, but so were all the farms around. The river was nearly dry. There came a day when Ferod knew that if they didn’t get rain immediately, they were all going to starve.

So once again Ferod went to the shrine. He didn’t really believe it would help, but he went anyhow, as had been his habit when he was desperate. The shrine was covered with vines now so that the rocks could hardly be seen.

“I need enough rain to water the crops,” he said.

“Are you sure you don’t want more?” he thought he heard again.

“Why do you always ask that?” he shouted. “OK! I want more! I want lots of rain! I want it to rain and rain.”

He said this because he didn’t believe the gods would do anything. Besides, the question made him angry because he felt foolish.

But before he was halfway home clouds were gathering and the rains began. It rained all the rest of that day. It rained all night. Then it rained the next day. In fact, it kept raining for two weeks. The river rose ominously, but it hadn’t overflowed its banks.

Nobody considered that it was raining in the mountains as well. But then there came a day when a rocky barrier was swept aside in the mountains and a wall of water swept through the village. It took away houses. It washed away the crops and most of the soil in which they grew. When it was done there was nothing left of Ferod’s village.

Ferod managed to survive, clinging to a large tree on top of a hill that wasn’t quite completely submerged. When the water receded he went to find the shrine.

There were only a few stones left scattered where the shrine had been. He raised his fists and yelled at the gods. “Why did you do this to me?” he asked.

“We only did what you asked,” said the voice. It might have been in his head. It might have been carried on the wind. He wasn’t sure.

The voice seemed to mock him. “Are you sure you don’t want more?”

(This post was written for the one word at a time blog carnival, on the word “more.”)

On the Worship of Umnam and Umnan

“Why were you in such a hurry to leave the last village?”

Roban looked at his daughter. She was also his apprentice in his trading business. He drove his wagon on a circuit amongst the towns and villages that extended hundreds of miles and weeks in time, buying and selling things that were available in one place but needed in another.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events and products of my imagination. Copyright © 2012, Henry E. Neufeld

He had convinced himself that, if his oldest child had been a boy, he would not have had to deal with so many questions. When he mentioned this conclusion to his wife, she broke into gales of laughter. But right now, whether it was sensible or not, he wished for a practical, down to earth, boy child. Yet he knew that nothing short of a real answer would satisfy his daughter.

“Because,” he said after a pause, “tonight is the heathen festival of their evil god Umnan.”

“Why do you call Umnan evil?”

“Because he is an evil god.” Roban tried to sound final, but he knew it wasn’t going to work.

“But Umnan sounds just like our god Umnam. There are lots of words that end in ‘n’ in these southern villages that end in ‘m’ back home.”

This made Roban think. Of course he’d noticed this before. It was essential in adjusting his speaking so he didn’t sound so foreign. Sounding foreign was bad for sales. He paused again, this time for a couple of minutes. He covered the pause by pretending to look over the oxen and the load, making sure all was well.

“It may sound like that,” he said finally, “but it isn’t really. Umnam is kind, just, and loving. He preserves us and defends us from the hostile spirits of nature. We sacrifice to him out of our love and thankfulness. Umnan is evil and nasty, and is out to get everyone in sight. He uses the hostile spirits of nature, the wind, storms, fire, and water. If his worshipers don’t sacrifice to him regularly, he will strike out and kill them.”

He hoped this would divert her, even though he hadn’t answered the question of why he was so determined to leave their village before the feast.

Temporarily, it seemed to work.

“Why?” she asked. This was normally his least favorite question. Right now, however, it offered a long diversion.

“Do you remember the story of the great flood?”

“Of course I do, daddy!” And that was very true. She tended not to forget things—anything, in fact—and she loved the ancient stories.

“Well, give me the outline.”

“Men were evil, so the gods sent a flood to destroy them. But Umnam saw that some of his people were obedient, and sent them warning by the prophet Urvam. They fled to their boats and rode out the flood. Many perished, but Umnam preserved the faithful and brought them to land again. When they reached land, they still had to face falling branches and unstable rock piles. But the sun came out again and a rainbow appeared, which was the sign that Umnam loved them and would preserve them forever.”

It was an admirable summary. Roban had hoped his daughter would tell the story in more detail, thus taking up more time and giving her an opportunity to forget her original question.

“Quite correct,” he said. “But the story of the great flood told in the south is quite different. Their story says that Umnan was angry with his people, and chose to destroy them with storm and flood. But a great hero, Urvan, learned that the flood was coming, and rode downstream on his horse ahead of the waters, warning his people to flee to their boats. Many were lost in the flood, but the survivors made it to shore. At the last moment the chief’s child was struck on the head by a falling branch, loosened by the wind. Thus the people learned that Umnan demands his price.”

He paused again. “You see how they pervert the truth with their demonic story?”

Several minutes of silence ensued. Roban found he approved, but at the same time it made him nervous, almost like the moments while one waited for a wild beast to strike. Of course, this was his daughter!

“But if you look at it differently,” his daughter said finally, “it could be the same story.”

“No, it couldn’t!” Roban came back instantly. “The two stories are not alike at all!”

And then it came. “I see,” said his daughter, deceptively calm. “But you still haven’t told me why you wanted to be out of the village before the feast.”

“Well, I’ll tell you. I didn’t want to, but I will. Every year at the feast, one child is chosen as a sacrifice to Umnan. That is evil! If you were in town, I guarantee they would choose you!”

The daughter truly did believe that was evil, but she still thought the stories were much too much the same.

I wonder whether Umnan actually wants a child sacrificed to him, she thought. Maybe a branch just fell, and that’s the way people interpreted it. But she was actually more cautious than her father gave her credit for, and she didn’t say it out loud.

(This is an exercise in taking a different point of view on a story. You should recognize similarities and dissimilarities with the biblical story of the flood, focusing on the lectionary passage Genesis 9:8-17. I’ll be discussing this in The Way Sunday School Class at First United Methodist Church, Pensacola, February 26, 2012. We ask members to bring various responses, art, poetry, stories, other thoughts.)

 

We Should Have Learned to …

“We’re not going to bother with any of that marching crap,” said Jeffords to his troops. They were his because he was the only one in town with experience in combat, little as that was.

The villagers were lined up, sort of, in front of him. The idea was that he would prepare them to fight in the great war should their baron call for them. He had hated all the details of military life, the drill, the order, uniforms, and theory. What was important was for people to learn to fight.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

His troops had spears and crossbows. The crossbows weren’t very good, but they were the preferred hunting weapons in the area. Jeffords suspected any real hunters had hidden those crossbows they actually used to hunt, and these were the remnants.

So Jeffords set about teaching the villagers to use those crossbows. Marksmanship was the order of the day, with a little bit of work with the spears (just in case the enemy got that close) on the side.

Then word came that enemy troops were approaching their own town. The baron had called for them. It was time to go to war.


“There’s no point trying to learn to use crossbows effectively,” said Karl. Karl, much like Jeffords, was the only person with military experience in his town. He was convinced that the peasants could not learn to fight properly, and the only possible way they could be used in battle was if you made them into a coherent unit.

“What we need to learn to do,” he told them, “is to learn to point those spears forward together, hold our shields locked together, and march forward together until those spears are sticking inside our enemies.” He did his best imitation of his drill instructor’s voice.

So Karl’s troops drilled constantly until they could make a solid wall of their shields and a nice hedge of their spears.

Then the word came that they must go to war for their baron.


It so happened that Jeffords’ groops and Karl’s troops faced one another when the day of battle came. Karl couldn’t quite suppress his worry as he saw all those troops carrying crossbows. If they were accurate enough for long enough, things could be very tough for his people.

Across the field, Jeffords had his own worries. If those troops across the field could hold that nice wall of shields and move forward with all those spears pointed straight forward, things could get pretty tough for his men. He was remembering how rarely his folks hit their targets, and it looked like this might start at longer range than they’d trained for.

Then the orderly line of troops started to march forward with their shields in a wall. On the other side crossbows began to fire. It was ragged—they’d never really learned to fire in a volley. Most of the bolts ended up in that wall of shields, though an occasional yell indicated a hit.

Jeffords realized the only possibility was for his troops to get behind. He began to yell the order. Unfortunately, nobody had practiced this particular maneuver. In fact, they had barely practiced any maneuvers.

So some chose to run around the right flank, others tried for the left flank, some thought it must be a retreat and started to run away, and there were a few who seemed to thing they should run forward with their spears.

Unfortunately (this time for the other side), some of Jeffords’ troops did make it around and it turned out that they did know a bit more about fighting than Karl’s troops did.

When the battle came to a close, or more accurately wound down due to the dwindling number of participants, there were quite a large number of bodies on the ground. Some of them were pretending, but who could tell?

Jeffords pulled himself up off the ground. His leg was cut wide open and he knew he wasn’t going to be walking soon. He looked at the mess.

“Maybe we should have learned how to march,” he muttered.

Across the field Karl looked around. He was in better shape than Jeffords, but he didn’t have much fight left in him.

“Maybe we should have learned how to fight,” he said.

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

Of Gold and Good Advice

The old man sat in his simple room looking at the bag of gold. “Use it however you want,” the rich young fellow had said. “I feel I need to give it to someone, and I have no idea who. I think you may know.”

The old man was renowned for his wisdom and his kindness. He had never sought attention or fame. He lived simply. He gave away whatever he didn’t need, and he needed very little.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

And here was a bag of gold, enough to buy the entire town. At least.

He thought of a plan. He divided up the money, and then he set out to find three young men.

 

“I believe you’re about to go and seek your fortune,” said the wise, old man to the first young man. “I want to make you an offer.”

“What? Make it snappy!” said the young man.

“I have here a bag of gold. It’s quite a considerable amount of money. I will give you a choice. Either I’ll give you this bag of gold, or I will give you a wise saying that will help you as you seek your fortune.”

“Give me the gold, if you have any,” said the first young man.

So the wise, old man handed the young man a small bag of gold. The young man was delighted with his good fortune. He went on his way, richer than he had ever imagined he would be.

“I will offer you a choice,” said the wise man to the second young man. “A wise saying to help you live a full life, or this bag of gold.”

“How much gold is there?” asked the second young man. “Can I get a sample of your wise advice?”

“This bag is filled with gold coins,” said the wise, old man. “And no, you must choose between the gold and the saying. I didn’t say it would be advice.”

The second young man was a thoughtful sort, and he had heard of the famous wise man. “I can always earn money,” he said, “I’ll take the wise saying.”

“You have within you a gift that can connect you with the universe,” said the wise, old man.

“Is that all?” asked the young man. “I should have taken the gold. It wasn’t a fair test.”

“What has fairness to do with it?” asked the wise, old man. “It’s my gold. I can give it or not as I choose. Here! I’ll give you the gold as well.”

The young man went on his way, still fuming. He had the saying and he had the gold, but somehow he felt cheated.

“I will give you a choice,” said the wise, old man to the third young man. “You may either have this bag of gold, or you may have a wise saying that will help you live a full life.”

“I’ll take the wise saying,” said the third young man.

“You don’t care how much gold I’m offering you?” asked the wise, old man.

“Not really,” said the third young man. “I’m not asking for it.”

“Very well, then. Here is the saying: ‘You have within you a gift that can connect you with the universe.'”

The third young man looked thoughtful. “Thank you,” he said. Then he started on his way.

“Here,” said the wise, old man. “I have no use for this. Take the gold as well.”

 

Some years passed, and the wise, old man heard news of the young men he had encountered.

The first young man went to the nearest city. He lived well on the gold. In fact, he could have lived for many years. But within the first year he invested the gold in a trading caravan that promised enormous profit.

The caravan was lost and never heard from again. The young man ended up penniless and eventually took his own life.

The second young man was very much disturbed by the saying given him by the wise, old man. He thought and thought about it, but he couldn’t see any value in it. Wise sayings should be easy to understand and put into practice! He thought the test had been unfair, and even though he was rich beyond his wildest dreams, he was angry, resentful, and very difficult to get along with.

His belief that the world was essentially unfair, setting traps for unsuspecting young men and treating them unjustly led him into conflict with others. He eventually killed someone in a drunken rage, a person who had treated him unfairly, and he ended up in the king’s dungeon.

The third young man was delighted that he had a gift within him. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant to connect with the universe, but he set out to discover what that gift might be. Each time he discovered something that appeared to be a gift he set to work on it to see whether it would help him connect with the universe. He wanted to discover what that would be like.

Over the years he found that he had many gifts, and as he put his best effort into developing every gift he discovered, he found he could do many things. He spent the gold very carefully, living on what he earned, and using it mostly to help him in his quest as well as to help others.

He became quite popular and well liked. He didn’t try to be popular, but there were so many people he had helped or taught, or even just served well when he worked.

Many years later he was sitting in a bar listening to the talk of the men and women from the caravan route. They told the story of a wise man who had a talent for helping people with his knowledge and his money. He recognized the story. It was his. But the speaker attributed it to someone in a town he had never heard of in a country he couldn’t have placed on a map.

“… connect you with the universe.” He suddenly realized just how connected he had become.

He chose to bring his story to the wise, old man himself.

“What do you think of the results of your experiment?” he asked.

 

Now you, reader, what do you think?

The LORD’s judgments are true.
All of these are righteous!
10 They are more desirable than gold—
than tons of pure gold!— (Psalm 19:9b-10a, CEB)

The True Word is Withdrawn

He couldn’t be more than four or five years old, thought the headman. He really should know, as this was the son of the resident priest at the little shrine on the north edge of town. But he really couldn’t remember.

This is a work of fiction. All person’s, places, and events are products of the authors imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

He’d wandered into the headman’s office and said he had a message from the gods. It was impossible to believe that the boy could think of the words he used. He’d condemned the headman for having one of the villagers executed on false evidence, and for stealing the property of others. The child had called the man, the elder, a liar, a thief, and a murderer. He said the gods were going to punish him.

It was intolerable. The child had said the message was from the gods, but he knew it had to be from the child’s father. How the father had known the headman’s secrets, the headman had no idea. But there was only one answer. The priest had to go. And the child would have to go as well.

“You lie,” said the headman. “Your father put you up to that message.”

“No, it is from the gods,” said the body.

“Liar,” shouted the headman. But the boy didn’t show the expected fear.

“The true word is withdrawn,” he said. “The gods will no longer speak.”

The headman laughed. “The gods will no longer speak,” he muttered. As if their speaking ever did any good. The priest brought regular messages, but they were either just general congratulations or they were so muddled nobody could figure out what they meant in any case. Who cared if the gods didn’t speak any more?

A few days later the priest and his wife were arrested. Everyone suspected the charge of theft of public money was trumped up, but they weren’t sure, and besides, nobody went against the headman. As was the tradition, the boy was given his father’s place. Of course, he had to be cared for by someone, and the headman generously offered to give him a home until he was old enough to go live alone in the shrine.

The years passed. As expected, the little boy grew up and became the priest of the shrine. And as was expected of him, he began to produce oracles from the gods. They were suitably difficult to interpret. Nobody could tell whether they were true or not, because nobody could be sure what they meant.

Yet the headman’s luck seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. From time to time as he was lying in bed unable to sleep he’d start to believe it had started on the day that the little boy had told him the gods were going to punish him. Then he’d push it from his mind. It really had just been a trick pulled by the boy’s father. Good thing he hadn’t fallen for it.

The boy, so far as the headman knew, didn’t even remember the incident. After all, the child had been very young.

Then came the day when the baron called for the headman to bring troops. There was to be a great battle. The headman didn’t want to go. What he needed was an excuse to stay away and send someone else. In fact, he wanted to keep all of his cronies and supporters from having to go to war and send some of the others.

The best way to do this was to have an oracle that told him (or could be construed to tell him) what he wanted to hear. That would justify him before the villagers, and reported (with suitable adjustments) in a letter to the baron, it would justify his sending someone else in response to the request—really an order—for support.

He didn’t bother to say anything to the priest, who would doubtless produce something suitably incomprehensible which could be interpreted however he needed it to be.

All the warriors gathered in the town square to hear the oracle before the chose those who would go to fight for the baron and those who would stay and defend the village.

“Those who go will face great trials, but will return crowned with glory and honor. Those who stay will be surprised and will suffer dishonor.”

It was suitably obscure, but how could he interpret it as direction from the gods that he should stay at home? He should have coached the priest as to what to say. Clearly the young man hadn’t realized his sponsor wanted to stay and had made the oracle too precise.

So the headman led the small group of warriors off to support the baron. As would be expected, those who were his closest supporters chose to go with him. Who could resist returning crowned with glory and honor? Who could explain such a decision?

It was unfortunate that the town elder left in charge was not a close associate of the headman. After all, the closest associates had headed off to war. He suspected the headman was stealing from the town. He suspected he had had innocent people imprisoned and killed. But he didn’t care.

The elder began to talk to others in the town, and they decided they really didn’t need the headman. They decided they would kill the headman and any warriors who chose to support him when they returned. They thought the number of returning warriors would be diminished, and they would be surprised.

It was an unsavory business. The rumors in the town were intense. Some said the interim headman was in bed with the real headman’s wife. Some said that it was the headman’s younger daughter. Everyone was talking about how the supposed caretaker was taking things for himself.

Then one day the watchman shouted out the word. The warriors were returning.

The men gathered near the gate, planning still to arrest the headman. What else could they do? Despite the chaos, there was no way they would survive if they let the headman take back power.

But it was a sad procession that entered the town. The headman was lying on a wagon. His weapons around him. He had been presented with a wreath as a crown by the baron for his valor in battle. Though the wreath has withered, he was, indeed crowned with honor. He was also quite dead. And embalmed. It really was quite a surprise.

But before everyone realized this a battle broke out between the warriors who had been left behind and the small number who had returned. Despite their small numbers, the returning soldiers did well, and killed most of their attackers. There was only one of the warriors who had stayed in the village left alive and unmaimed when the battle was over.

He went to the temple and asked the priest how everything could go so wrong for everyone.

“The true word was withdrawn,” said the priest who had been the boy. “What did you expect?”

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A Fresh Perspective – I

(See also A Fresh Perspective – II.)

For years merchant trains had passed through the town by the falls on their way to the great north-south trade route to the west. The terrain was terrible, but alternate routes were even worse. One could go two or three days journey southward, past the end of the gorge below the falls, then cross the river, and head up on the southern side, but that took even more time and the road above the falls wasn’t any better on that side than on this one.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and things are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance of anything or anyone in the story to anything or anyone in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012,
Henry E. Neufeld.

Then had come the bad news. Several towns to the east had gotten together and were clearing and improving the road that bypassed the end of the gorge. They were blasting passages through the rocky hills. They were building a bridge across the river past the end of the gorge. They were building a road that avoided the river entirely. Put simply, they were making it possible for wagon trains to cut several days off their passage and avoid the long treck up the mountain to the town by the falls. The distance was greater, but the time was substantially less!

The elders of the town by the falls were downcast. Almost all of the income for people in the town, and for miles around, came from the trade traffic. There were porters to make the climb up the mountain, caravan guards, blacksmiths, and all the workers required to clothe and feed them. So they hired an engineer to estimate the cost of blasting a road up the mountain and then improving the road by the river. If they could do this, the route through the town was much shorter, and they could bring the caravan traffic back.

But the engineer told them that the cost would be much too great. Not even if everyone in the town donated their labor could the cost be brought down to something the town could afford. The resulting road would be hard to navigate, with nothing but tight switchback turns. It would even be dangerous.

The elders argued for hours. They discussed where they could get loans. They wondered if there was a way to bring goods up to the town that would cost less than building a road. Some people thought one could contrive a way to bring wagons up to the town with a contraption of pulleys and ropes, but the elders dismissed that immediately. Who would ever think of doing such a thing?

Then one man, bearded and dressed in animal skins, tried to get their attention. He first tried clearing his throat, but nobody listened. Then he waved his arms, but nobody noticed. Then he said “excuse me” while he waved his arms. People nearby said, “Shhh!” but nobody paid any further attention to him. Finally he jumped up, waved his arms, and yelled, “Hey! Excuse me!”

Then one of the elders said impatiently, “Yes? What do you want?”

“I have an idea,” said the wild looking man.

“Who are you?” asked the senior elder.

“I’m Embo, a hunter and hunting guide,” said the wild man.

“And what qualifies you to have an idea about our road? We have consulted all the best experts.”

“I grew up in these woods,” said Embo. I have guided hundreds of hunting parties upstream and downstream, and far afield in the mountains to the north. I know these mountains.”

“Knowing these mountains doesn’t qualify you to build roads,” said the engineer.

“I’ve never heard of you,” said one of the elders.

“He doesn’t look respectable,” said another elder to the person beside him, in a voice he thought was quiet.

“I know these mountains,” said Embo again.

There was murmuring amongst the elders and the audience, but the head elder waved his arm and silenced them. “We have been arguing for hours and we have not found any solution. It won’t hurt us to hear this … um … man’s idea.”

“To the north perhaps a day’s journey, there is a gap in the cliffs. It leads up onto the plateau a few miles west of the village. One could build a road through it, and it would join the river road.”

“That is why hunting guides shouldn’t pretend to be engineers,” said the engineer. “The passage up to the town is only the minor part of the problem. Building an adequate road along the river presents a much greater problem.”

“Yes,” said the senior elder. “What do you say to that?” But he asked his question in a tone that expected an answer. You see, none of the elders knew about the gap in the cliffs. They were only interested in what was in the town and in the caravan traffic. Why bother with gaps in cliffs?

“Well,” said Embo, “I was coming to that. Everybody knows [they didn’t, but why bring that up?] that another day or so westward along the river the current slows enough as it crosses the plateau so that one can navigate it with boats or small barges. . . .”

“There’s another reason that hunting guides should not pretend to be engineers. How are these boats to get far enough above the falls so that they can be used safely?” The engineer crossed his arms over his chest and gave Embo a challenging look.

“I was getting to that,” said Embo. “I have frequently moved hunting parties up the river by simply having horses pull the boat along by walking on the current road. While the road is rough on wagon wheels, the horses can handle it quite well.”

The engineer opened his mouth to speak, but Embo held up his hand. “Before you tell me this is another reason why a hunting guide should not presume to be an engineer, let me tell you that I have seen this sort of thing elsewhere, and that it would probably be best to have the boats hauled by oxen. The path will have to be improved, but not nearly as much as you are proposing. The resulting travel time will be days shorter than it is on the new road, and the wear and tear on the carts will be much lower.”

The engineer opened his mouth and shut it several times. He wanted to object, but he had already thought of some improvements that might be made to the plan, and there was a commission at stake.

“I see you are just now beginning to get the idea,” said Embo. “Perhaps that is why engineers should not presume to be hunting guides!”

(This story was written for, and has been submitted to the One Word at a Time blog carnival on the word “Fresh.”)

 

We Want You to Recover the Staff

“We want you to recover the staff,” said the mayor.

“Why? Why not just make another one?” asked Jed. He was young and liked to do important things. Recovering a stick didn’t sound important.

“Make another staff?” asked the mayor incredulously.

This is a work of fiction. All persons places and events are products of my imagination. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld

“It’s just a stick,” said Jed.

The mayor looked at Jed for a moment. How could he explain? Perhaps he shouldn’t try.

“You know the market stall, the one just in front of the entrance?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Jed cautiously, but he couldn’t keep the acquisitive gleam out of his eyes. Every craftsman in the village wanted that space.

“I happen to know it will be vacant in a few weeks. If you recover the staff for the village, I will see that you get the spot.”

“I understand that old Edward the clothier who has it now paid well over a year’s wages for it.” Jed said this in the tone of a casual observation.

“Yes, but it could be yours if you just recover that staff for the village.”

“Very well,” said Jed. “I will try to find the thing and bring it back.”

It took Jed some time to find the staff. The problem was that while it was distinctively carved and quite old there was nothing else to commend it. He couldn’t think of any reason that anyone would actually remember it. And he was right. They didn’t.

After several weeks he was about to give up when he ran across a stall in a small town market that could best be described by the word “miscellaneous.” There were several staffs there, generally for walking, and amongst them he saw one that was too short to use as a walking stick, unless for a child or a dwarf, and too thick to be comfortable for them.

It was the village staff. It took all of Jed’s self-control to keep that acquisitive gleam out of his eye. It was his downfall in negotiations. But he managed.

As he passed over the three copper coins to pay for it, the stall keeper said, “I hate to question a sale, but I’m wondering what possible use you have for this. I haven’t been able to figure it out.”

Jed considered telling the man the truth, but he was afraid the price would change. He just said, “I have a project and this wood will be just right for it.” The stall keeper just shrugged, took his coppers, and said good bye and good luck.

Back in the village Jed took the staff to the mayor. “Here’s your stick, Mr. Mayor,” he said in a careful mix of formality and sarcasm.

“Thank you,” said the mayor, “but I think I will need you to present this formally to the city council.”

“Why?”

“It’s important, Jed. You don’t understand, but the council will, and the village will.”

So Jed took a deep red cloth that the mayor provided, worth much more than the staff, and wrapped the staff in the cloth. At the council meeting he carried it formally into the council chamber and presented the staff to the mayor. Then he was waved over to what was clearly the seat of honor.

Jed had never been to a council meeting. He had never cared about the politics of the village at all. He was a craftsman, a woodworker, and a good one. But he spent all his time on practical things.

The village bard got up and began to sing the song of Jed, who had recovered the village’s staff. It described the way in which authority had failed when the staff was missing (though Jed had never noticed), then the many terrors Jed had endured to recover the staff (none of which had actually happened). Then it told the story of his triumphant return to the village.

In the weeks that followed Jed tried very hard to tell his story. Some of the young, practical folks listened to him, but it didn’t matter to them much in any case. The older villagers and the children preferred the story the bard told. Because he wanted to correct the story, he listened to some of the other stories, such as how the first mayor of the village had received the staff directly from the king.

Jed got his place in the market, right in front of the entrance. But soon he realized that it didn’t make any difference at all. Everyone wanted to get their furniture from the living legend who had recovered the staff. At first it bothered him, since the story wasn’t true. But as the copper, then the silver, and finally the gold rolled in, he almost forgot about the real story.

Many a visitor would come into the marketplace looking for someone to make a piece of furniture or do some repairs. “You’ll want to go to Jed in the first stall,” the villagers would say. “He’s already a legend, even though he’s rather young. You’ll want your work done by the man who recovered the staff.”

The villagers were happy. Jed almost forgot. But every so often it would bother him when someone bought something for well above the market price just because they were buying it from a living legend. It made him try very hard to produce the best product he possibly could so that people would get their money’s worth.

It bothered him, but with the money in his hand it didn’t bother him very much.

Then one day a rich man from a city far away stopped in the village. “Are you Jed?” he asked.

“I am.”

“I have a friend who has a chair made by you, and I have never seen such workmanship. I want you to make a table and a set of chairs for my dining room.”

“You’re not here because of the staff?” asked Jed.

“What staff?” asked the rich man.

“Never mind,” said Jed.

And he went happily to work.

(I wrote this story for the Recover Blog Carnival.)