Revolution#113, December 23, 2007

A Holiday Story

Winter. . . The Mountains. . . Some Time in the Future. . .

Rang looked down the slope, but dusk was already lowering down. She could taste the December storm coming up in the air. Tok and Sarny, the two youngest, had fallen behind and now it had been almost half an hour. If they didn’t show up soon, she’d have to get a few of the others to go with her to find them.

Rang was 14. They’d been up in the mountain lake region for four weeks restoring one of the lakes poisoned in the back-then. They were also getting set for the round of meetings to “wruggle out,” as they’d say, what to do about the cities – break them down further, or build them up as special centers in a different kind of way, and all kinds of things in between. The debate promised to be sharp, very sharp. It would be her first time, and she was desperately trying to study up. But she had been equally determined to get a hike in that day, even though on some level she knew that it had been too dark too early for it to be really safe. And if she had time after her reading, part of her was thinking maybe she could squeeze in some work on a song she’d been tinkering with, because there would be parties during the winter holiday coming up.

But then Sarny came bursting up the back path, with Tok strolling behind her. Rang exhaled. The kid was spilling out words in a torrent.

“Tok told me a lie! Tok told me a lie!” The eight-year-old was indignant. “You did!” Sarny said, pointing to Tok while she looked at Rang. “And you’re not supposed to lie.”

Tok shrugged. He had an easy way about him, and a sly kind of humor for someone who had just turned ten. “Not a lie,” he said. “Hard to believe doesn’t make something a lie.”

“It’s a lie!” she shouted. “What you said couldn’t be true.”

“Hey, don’t believe me. Ask them. They’ll tell you.” Tok took a step to the fire and gestured to the rest of the crew.

Sarny turned to the others. “Tok said that they used to scare the kids, scare ’em when they were little, from when they were really little, and make ’em believe in things that weren’t true. He said that winter holiday used to be a day when they told kids that it was the birthday of this cruel powerful guy who was really a god, and that if they didn’t love him and celebrate his birthday, he’d burn them and jeer at them and and and torker” –

“Torture,” corrected Tok –

“. . .torture them forever. . . and that’s why they had to celebrate it. That can’t be true, can it?”

Rang looked over at Beta, who kept rigging the tents; then to Zeph, who was the only old one in the group. Zeph just looked at her nails while she suppressed a grin. “Well, what else did you get into?” Rang asked.

“Tok said that they used to tell the kids that this guy could do everything and that he knew everything, and that he could even see inside your mind and know what you were gonna do before you knew. That he had all these rules for people and never ’splained them, and that if anyone broke them they wouldn’t talk about it with ’em but instead they’d keep ’em alive after they were dead and burn them forever in a fire – like in a lake but one they hadn’t restored yet, with all the caustic and poisons still in it. But that if they followed his rules then the grown ones would give ’em toys and stuff. And that winter holiday used to be to celebrate the cruel guy’s birth.” Sarny was beside herself, but Rang wanted to hear more, and let things unfold.

“Tok said that the cruel guy told people – and they told this to kids on winter holiday, but the grownups all believed it too – that he was gonna live forever, and that even if they followed all the rules, he would still torture them forever unless they loved him. And they couldn’t just say they loved him, they had to really love him.”

“‘Above all else,’” Beta muttered.

“And then when he died they had put nails in him, and his crew went around and told people that all that was their fault, and that he was gonna come back, but they wouldn’t say when – they said it could be any time – and that if people didn’t spend all their time thinking about how much they loved him, well then he was gonna torker, I mean torture, them when he got back and then kill them and then make them come back to life so he could torture them some more.”

Zeph was grinning. “Sounds pretty grim.”

Rang cut a glance at Zeph.

“That’s what they told ’em back-then,” said Tok, casual like.

Sarny whirled and almost jumped at him. “No, they didn’t. Or if they told ’em, nobody believed it! I wouldn’t have believed it, see? I know that.”

Rang looked at the fire for a minute and then spoke, quietly. “It’s true, Sarny. That’s how it was back-then. They’d make up stuff like that and tell it to people starting when they were little, and they’d tell ’em other scary stuff too. And that one was about the worst. At least from what I’ve looked into.” The crew knew that Rang would read the old myths from back-then a lot. She was fascinated with the stories, but more she would try to imagine how people would be thinking.

“But. . . but. . . is there a guy like that? I mean, who can do all that? Who can know what you’re thinking, and torture you?”

“Well, there was a guy. But no, he couldn’t do all that. You know that, right? We’ve talked about how we can listen to people and think about how they think. . . but we can’t really know what they think before they do, can we? That’s part of why we have to listen carefully to people.” Sarny nodded, a little uncertainly. Rang thought for a minute. “Okay, remember that show we saw last spring? Where the guy made it seem like he was reading people’s minds, and that he could make things appear out of nowhere and then disappear? And then remember how he showed us how he did it all at the end?” Sarny brightened at the memory. “Well, during back-then, some people would do the tricks, but they wouldn’t explain them, and they would use the tricks to fool and confuse people.”

I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know you wouldn’t. But remember, back-then people were still keeping one another down. And the ones who knew things didn’t want to share their knowledge.” Sarny looked confused again; maybe come back to that later.

“But what about dying? Can people be brought back to life?” Turns out that Tok the worldly-wise also had a question.

Beta looked up from the tents. “I don’t think so – I mean unless you mean like when they get you into med when you’re unconscious. Remember when Kar died? Zeph helped us examine his body and learn about why it wouldn’t work anymore. And we talked about how for a while he had been with us, and now he wasn’t, but all the things he had done and all the things we had done together and the things that we would remember about him. But we couldn’t make him keep living, and even though we missed him we wouldn’t want to.” Sarny and Tok were rapt, thinking about Kar – the way that they had all nursed him, how he smiled right before he died, and then how Zeph had so slowly, for once, explained things.

“Were they scared of their deaths, back-then?” asked Tok.

Rang nodded, thinking that for all her reading, she still couldn’t quite get her mind around the way they’d obsess about death back-then, the way they’d think they were gonna go on living once they died, the way they wanted to keep living. Life was so grim back-then, but they were so scared to give it up. They told themselves somehow it’d be better after they died, and they scared themselves shitless about getting tortured forever if they didn’t obey the god, and it was all Rang could do to keep from crying when she’d read the testimony on it.

“I think they were scared because of their lives, Sarny,” Rang said. “Thinking there was some powerful guy – that there was a god – gave people a way to make some sense out of it, let ’em think there was some reason for it all, that it’d get redeemed” – Sarny looked puzzled at the word – “you know, evened out, like, made good, in the end. Like when you work hard for months on the lake, but when you’re done you see where you’ve done some good from it.”

“Yeah, but why’d they scare the kids then?” Beta said, his voice a little tense. “Why the torture? That didn’t make sense out of anything.”

Blue had been listening while he was preparing the dinner. He had joined the crew just six weeks ago from a group a few days away, saying he wanted to be with new people and hear new thoughts. Blue was a strong hiker, quiet but could sing like a river rushing down the mountain. And he could cook like crazy. He gave people their plates, and spoke. “I think the people made up the stories to make sense out of things, but they were trying to make sense out of a life that was really crazy. A life where a few people lived off the many, and could make their lives miserable. I mean back-then most people could get tortured themselves if they stepped wrong, thought different. But not by some made-up god. By other people.” Blue glanced at Rang.

 Zeph chimed in, serious now. “Served the ones who could torture to tell the ones they were holding down those tales, ’s what I think.” Tok took it in. But Sarny seemed more bewildered than ever.

“What are you talking about? Why would people do that to each other? We don’t.” There were tears in her voice.

“It’s hard, Sarny. But people used to do that, back-then. It took people fighting and fighting for centuries to get us here, where we all work together and just treat each other like . . .I don’t know. . . like people.” Rang was talking in a very quiet voice.

“Did they – I mean the people who fought in the back-then, for us – did they believe in the torture guy?”

“Well, some had trouble shaking it, at least at first. To me? From what I’ve read? Seems like it was one of the biggest chains of all on ’em. See, when people believe in things that aren’t real – well, it’s like a blinder on a horse, or those distorting glasses at the park.  It keeps people from getting to and seeing the whole truth, it kept them from really looking at what they had to do, seeing what there was to things, and then that there was no one else but them to do it – you know, do it all the way.”

 “So how’d they stop believing?”

“I’m not sure altogether. Still studying it, trying to work it all out. It was kind of complex. Some people who believed in the torture god thought that he was on their side, and so it gave them courage. But even though it was a kind of courage based on lies” – uh oh, the kids were looking puzzled again – “some of the people who saw through it said to let the others go on believing in the lie, that somehow it would help them fight against the people who made up the lie. But some people could see that even if people believed in the lie but fought against the way things were, sooner or later this lie was gonna hold ’em back and hurt ’em. See, if you believed a lie just ’cuz it was familiar or made you feel better, then you wouldn’t know the real picture and you’d think you couldn’t know the real picture. And that would hurt everybody, because they needed everybody to be figuring out what’s real and what isn’t. Just like we need everyone.” The kids both nodded at that. “So the ones who could see that the torture-god didn’t really exist and that there was no god fought hard for the others to see the truth. It was a huge wruggle, from what I’ve read – comrades arguing about what was real and what wasn’t, and then sometimes after they argued they weren’t comrades – sometimes for a while, and sometimes for good.”

Beta spoke again. “But people made the revolutions, Sarny, right? People began to see that they didn’t need this stuff, and what with the revolutions and then the wruggle over what’s real and the whole thing, at least as I understand it. . . well, they got to where we are now.” Rang dug into the plate Blue had prepared.

Sarny looked at the fire, and then up to the stars. “But will we always have to wruggle?”

Rang savored Blue’s dinner. She thought about the state of the lake that morning, how challenging the work had been these weeks both physically and mentally, and felt the caustic burn on her foot. She thought of the clashing ideas about how to rework the cities that had been churning in her mind for the past month. She caught a glance of her guitaratron, in the corner of the tent. Rang loosened a boot and stretched and took out her flashlight. “Think so, Sarny, think so.”

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