This is something that came to me over the past week. I'm not sure what I think about it and haven't come up with a title that satisfies me, either, so any comments will be appreciated. Is it more propaganda than fiction?
AS YET UNTITLED
“Doo-yoo member! Doo-yoo member! Doo-yoo member!” the children clamored. Dressed in deerskin pants and rabbit fur vests, they jumped up and down wildly in front of the seated and lounging adults. Theirs was not a question but a demand, and they would not settle down to a night’s sleep until it was met.
The grown ones looked at each other and sighed. A handsome young woman turned quickly to the oldest male present.“Robert?”
It always fell to Robert. He remembered far more than the other adults, most of whom had been born later, in the Troubled Times, those days and years when everything was already falling apart, and he needed little encouragement to launch into a recitation of his Golden Age memories. He told himself that recounting his life’s stories was the most important contribution he could make to the group. Rabbit meat and huckleberries kept the people’s bodies from withering away, but their minds, he had convinced himself, to remain as healthy as their bodies, needed more to do than improvise search parties for food. The adults needed to remember their earliest days, and the children, born since those days, needed to hear what it had been like.
“Where should I start?” he asked the young woman. Always at the beginning, before getting underway, his mind was so full of jostling memories that its screen went blank for a few seconds.
The young woman’s skin was golden brown, her hair black and her teeth whiter than any of the other adults’ teeth, owing to her daily practice of chewing on sticks. She had an elm twig between her lips now, held gently at the ready. “Do you ‘member television?” she asked with apparent innocence, knowing very well that he did. All the adults remembered the Last Days of Television, those loud, frantic broadcasts before the screens went dark.
“The little people in boxes?” asked one of the girls, who had heard the story before but never quite gotten it clearly in mind. Actually, most of the children had this problem. It was so hard to explain the Golden Age to them. Even the ensuing Troubled Times were before their time, before the primitive present into which this group of survivors had been tumbled willy-nilly.
“Where’s our Box?” the young woman asked, and one of the men rose solemnly and pulled from a recess in the stone wall a small rectangular box crudely fashioned of pine, fitted with a removable pine bark lid. The man removed the lid and emptied into it the contents of the box, a few teeth of various sizes, some human, and some animal. He handed the empty box to Robert, who held it on its side on one open palm because the children needed a concrete object on which to focus their attention.
“Notice how you can see right into the Box when the top is off?” he asked the children. “Well, televisions weren’t open on the side, but they had screens made of glass, and glass was something you could see right through as if it wasn’t there.”
“So you could see what was inside the box?” They were already confused.
“No, what you saw through the glass wasn’t really inside the box. The pictures came from far away, through the air. Or sometimes they were held on storage devices that fit into the boxes or plugged into them.”
“Pictures of what?” one older boy asked almost angrily. He had heard these stories before and didn’t believe any of them. Preposterous, that’s what they were! But at least the word ‘pictures’ meant something to him. The adults sometimes drew with soft stones on the cave walls representations of their lives both Before and Now.
“Anything you can imagine,” Robert answered, but then he recalled that these children could not imagine much at all, and he amended his statement to claims even more confusing. “You might see anything in the world, from anywhere, from any time or no time at all. Things that happened in other places, things that never happened at all.” He realized that once again they needed a concrete example. “The way you dance in front of the fire? There might be pictures of that, only they would be moving pictures, as if your dancing were happening there in the box, your bodies and faces, but it wasn’t at all. You would be outside, looking in, watching. You could watch it over and over again.”
“We dance over and over again,” pointed out one little girl hesitantly, her face full of doubt. “We dance every night.” She didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings, but what was so special about events happening more than once? Everything they did, they did over and over!
“Ah, that’s the difference!” Robert said quickly. “Imagine if you danced only one time but then watched the dancing that you did just once over and over, as if it were happening night after night! And you could watch things other people did, too, people you’d never seen in real life, people far, far away.”
It was always like this. They begged for Robert’s stories, then stared at him uncomprehendingly, their questions and expressions showing how little they understood, how very little connection anything he could tell them had to the only world they had ever known. Only the adults remembered enough to find Robert’s stories meaningful, and one of them asked now, addressing his question to the other adults in general, “Do you remember e-mail and chat rooms?”
“I was addicted,” a middle-aged woman said with a rueful laugh. “I didn’t even want to talk to people face to face, my parents especially. The Internet let me hide from the world close around me and let me be someone else entirely—a different person every day, if that’s what I wanted. I loved it!”
“Yeah, it took up a lot of time,” another man said. “Isn’t it incredible to think about that now, how much time we spent that way?”
The children looked back and forth from one speaker to another, their mouths hanging open, except for the angry boy and the skeptical girl, both of whom held their lips pressed tightly together. An older couple, though, close to Robert’s age, sat close together, holding hands. Suddenly the woman looked up at the man beside her and smiled hesitantly.
“Remember books?” she said softly.
The man sighed and repeated the word with his exhaling breath. “Books!”
“What? What?” the children chorused, excited. They hadn’t heard this word before and wondered what mystery it stood for. Electric and electronic devices, along with household conveniences, dominated the adults’ memory sessions, and Robert often tried to explain electricity to them, beginning with lightning and its force, but this new word, ‘books,’ had never come up before. Such a simple word it was, too, compared to the meaningless, multisyllabic incantations the grownups threw back and forth. Books. The children tried the word out softly, repeating it in sighs as the woman’s husband had uttered it.
“What did ‘book’ mean?” asked the skeptical girl. “Was it something elec--? Elec--?” She stopped, uncertain of the word she wanted.
“Those came later. E-books, they were called. But I think we’re remembering” (here he glanced at the couple by the wall of the cave, leaning together and holding hands tightly) “real books.”
“Yes,” the man by the wall said, and he and the woman nodded. She had tears in her eyes.
“I always got a special book for my birthday,” she said, “and it was mine, all mine, and I could read every word of it over and over, and the words would never change, they would never get erased, and I could share it with a friend or hide it under my pillow or take it up in the apple tree with me--.” She stopped suddenly and hid her face against her husband’s chest.
“We haven’t let ourselves talk about this before,” he said apologetically.
There was a long silence. The suddenly dreamy faces of the adults were full of longing, while the children frowned, trying to make out the key to the mystery.
“Books? Like Box?” one little child finally asked.
“No, one book, many books, so many of them, as many as leaves on that tree in summer, all different kinds! Adventure tales, books of facts and fiction, poetry books, history--.” The children looked out from the cave opening to the tall tree, now bare of leaves now in early winter. They tried to picture the tree in summer, covered with leaves. How many leaves would that have been?
“Well, where did they go?” the child interrupted impatiently. Robert’s descriptive words meant as little to him as the unfamiliar noun. “Did they die like leaves?”
The adults exchanged furtive glances, reluctant to shift from their happy memories of the Golden Age to those of the Troubled Times.
“It happened so gradually,” one man finally said, his words themselves emerging slowly. “You asked if books were electronic,” he said to the skeptical girl. “For hundreds of years no, and then suddenly, overnight, it seemed, they were, and that’s where the Troubles began. You would only get the text” (he knew this word would mean nothing to the children, but he also knew that the adults needed to remember how things had changed), “and you would only have it for a limited time, on your own little—well, kind of a Box. You weren’t supposed to let anyone else borrow it, and it wasn’t anything you could save for your children or grandchildren.” He shrugged and spread his empty hands at his sides. “That’s why we have no books to pass along to you. For years we had books, and then we had only boxes, and now we have nothing at all.” His hands fell into his lap, helplessly.
“How—did books work?” the angry boy asked, reluctant to show his curiosity but unable to hold it inside.
Robert hesitated, then seemed to make a decision. He pulled a scrap from inside the old, ragged, heavy wool, red-checked jacket he had worn for almost two decades. He held the scrap in his hands, reverently, and the children edged closer to get a good look.
“This is paper,” Robert explained. “I’ve saved it for a very long time.” He stared at it as if he expected it to speak or jump out of his hand. “Paper was made of wood and cloth and water and dried into sheets, and then words were put on it, and sheets of paper were bound together into books, and when you opened a book you would read the words and hear the story in your mind.”
The little ones stared at the scrap of paper as if it were a magic charm, while the adults drew back in fear—all except for the woman with tears in her eyes, who grabbed suddenly, greedily, for Robert’s hand. But he snatched it back quickly, closing his fingers around his precious scrap.
“Let me see! What does it say?” she demanded.
“It’s only a corner. There’s a number ‘49’ on the edge, a page number, and there’s part of a word.” He spelled it out: “R-E-F-L-E-C and then a hyphen. That’s all. That’s all there is.”
A deeper silence fell, and then the woman broke it by saying, “You could have been killed for saving that!”
Robert’s answering sigh heaved up from the soles of his aged feet. “I know,” he said, “but it was paper--letters and numbers on paper.” His gaze went out of focus, as if he were seeing through the walls of the cave into another time and place. “It’s ironic,” he said. “Paper was called ‘ephemeral.’ You children don’t know what that means. It means something that doesn’t last very long, like a dragonfly, something with a short life. But paper! Good paper in good binding—books could last hundreds of years! After they were gone, text had no real life at all. No fixed address, you might say. Its storage was vulnerable.”
There he went again, using long words the children had never heard, words that, except for ‘tree’ and ‘cloth’ and ‘wood’ and ‘dragonfly,’ didn’t attach to objects at all. But the angry boy and the skeptical girl looked at each other thoughtfully, and they both knew at this moment that the same thought was forming in both their minds.. It wasn’t the first secret they had shared.
Wood they had in plenty. Scraps of cloth still existed deep in the cave and on the bodies of some of the older ones. Water was only a short walk away.
All they had to figure out was the part about capturing words, turning sounds into marks and pinning them down.
© P. J. Grath
August 23, 2010