A work of fiction, set in an indefinite future time. Standard disclaimers.
The boy, thirteen years old, hair sandy and long, skin brown, body thin, lithe and supple in a desert-desiccated sort of way, stood entranced, watching the elder at work.
They were on a level platform near the shore of a surfless sea, a sea that smelled of brine and ammonia. Ancient tales told of sweet water and fish, but now the sea held neither. Around them, the desert land was barren and gray. On the eastern horizon, jagged, rocky, lifeless mountains lacerated the sky. The sun was just appearing over the crest of the highest peaks. By noon, its heat would be unbearable, though it was only the fourth moon after the shortest days, and they would have to seek shelter. The boy looked apprehensively at the elder, a man perhaps fifty years old but gray and craggy like the mountains, with crinkly eyes and worn, fissured leather for skin.
The elder, confident of his skill, toiled steadily, unhurriedly, unconcerned about the rising of the sun. He walked around the platform, chanting quietly, and every now and then letting something fall from his clenched fists. It was sand, sand of now this color, now that, and as the sand fell, it created a picture on the platform, a picture made of sand, dazzling in its color palette and astonishing in its detail. On and on he walked, now casting sand, now dipping into one or other of the bowls of sand that he had placed around the edge of the platform, while the sun’s promise of deadly peril climbed closer to its fulfillment, and the boy’s dread of that fulfillment mounted.
Finally, the man walked around the platform four times, in silence, without dropping any more sand. Then he stopped, facing the mountains, the painting – for that’s what it now was – at his feet. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, waited … waited … Then, abruptly, as if from the pits of his soul, an astonishingly loud cry, half command, half wail.
In response to the cry, another man rose from the protecting lee of a boulder and walked towards the elder and his painting. Walked, or better ‘stumbled’, as he was clearly unwell. As he approached the platform, it became apparent that the man’s left leg had been badly cut, and it was now bleeding and oozing. The elder, who had resumed chanting when the hurt man had stepped onto the platform, inspected the injury, and then reached for one of the bowls. It contained a fine black powder. He liberally dusted the cut with the powder, and then bid the injured man lie on the sand painting, with the cut side appressed to the sand. The patient, for that’s what the injured man was, did so, in the process smearing and obliterating the painting, and remained motionless for some time, while the elder chanted and danced around him. Finally, he stopped, and bid the man with the cut leg rise and face him.
“You will come here every day until you are healed, if the gods so will”, the elder spoke. “In the meantime, you are to be idle. Let the women and the youth tend to you, let the men do your work. You will be under obligation to them, but the time to repay the debt is after you are well, and, when another of the people is in need, you remember the help you have yourself received. Let no unclean water, soil, or garment touch the wound. If any such does, wash the hurt in water that has been boiled today and cooled, and report what has happened to me tomorrow. May the gods bless my work and show you favor.”
In response, the patient bowed low, bowed himself off the platform, and then limped off into the desert, soon lost from sight on the boulder-strewn ground.
“Will he be OK?” The boy’s question shattered both the windless quiet and the sanctity of the ceremony and its aftermath.
“Maybe”, the elder replied. “The cut is deep, the corruption of flesh worrying. I am doing what I can, all else is in the hands of the gods. Now, help me.”
From a depression near the platform, under the lee of yet another boulder, the elder withdrew a blanket and a stick with rushes tied to one end – a broom. He bid the boy anchor the blanket with rocks, with one of its edges flush with that of the seaward side of the platform. When that was done, the elder swept the sand, that had once been a painting, onto the blanket. He then took two corners of the blanket and bid the boy take the other two.
“Do not touch the sand or let it touch you, for it is unclean.”
Together, the two schlepped the blanket with its load of sand to the edge of the surfless sea, and together they flung the sand into the briny, ammonia-reeking water. Some of the sand fizzed as it sank.
Then, they returned the blanket to a flat space next to the platform, and secured it to the ground, once again with rocks. The elder tugged at the edges to ensure that the blanket was straight and flat, and proof against stray breezes, and he saw that it was good. He straightened.
“By nightfall, the blanket and the platform will be clean, if the gods will that the sun shine on them as he has for days uncounted, and that his heat be not abated. You see”, he said, half turning to the boy, “not all need hate and fear the noon hour.” He winked; and the boy realized that the elder had been observing his companion’s mounting nervousness about being out in the sun the whole time.
“I am glad that this is so, Master”, the boy spoke, in the formal tones befitting his station and his circumstance, a youth attending – indeed, assigned to – one of the Greats. The solemnity was marred by the cracking of a voice that had not yet decided whether it belonged to a child or an adult. “But by remaining under the sun after our task is done, do we not needlessly tempt the Trickster?”
“The Trickster needs no invitation from us”, the elder responded sternly. “But”, relenting a bit, “there is also no need for us to put ourselves in his path. Come.” He strode off in the direction that the man with the injured leg had taken. The boy followed.
Initially, their way was narrow and dusty. It wound among the rocks and boulders, and they passed in single file, the elder ahead, the boy behind. But soon, that path joined another, wide and straight, with its surface stone-hard and black, where two, indeed twenty, could easily walk abreast. The boy caught up with the elder, and they walked together in silence.
After a short walk, they turned right, onto a shorter path of the same style, and then descended into a depression, about fifteen feet deep, the walls of which were faced with crumbling gray stone. Over the eastern and western ends of the depression, blankets and hides had been stretched. As they entered the eastern end, the boy visibly relaxed, welcoming the cool shade.
The elder, matter-of-factly, went to a tank in the north corner. From a hole in the crumbling gray stone, he took two glasses. They were an unnatural red, though much pitted and scratched; the boy suddenly recognized the color as one that the elder had used in his painting. At the bottom of the tank, there was a strangely fashioned stick, with another stick fastened to the top. The elder placed the glass under the lower stick, turned the upper one. Water came out, filled the glass. The elder filled both glasses, handed one to the boy. “Drink.” They both did.
When they had finished, the boy studied the glass, turning it this way and that, feeling its strangely soft, warm surface, observing the indecipherable marks on its bottom.
“A marvel”, the boy spoke at last.
“The world is full of marvels”, the elder replied, “for those who choose to observe them and heed their stories.”
“Did you make this?”
“I did not. I have not the knowledge, the skills, or the materials.”
The boy’s eyes opened wide. That the man who could create such paintings as he did, and use them to heal the sick, would lack knowledge, and would admit it …!
The elder answered the boy’s thoughts. “The ancients pass to us this word. Beware the man who claims to know, for he knows nothing and does not know that he knows nothing. The man who knows is silent, for what he knows is that he has no claim to knowledge. The ancients knew how to make this marvel, and much like it, but did not know how to preserve the world that could make them. Many were loud in their claims. Now all are silent. And their world is gone.”
The boy processed this thought for some time, standing, facing the elder, head bowed, silent. Then he straightened. “Your work is a marvel. To create it, your knowledge must be mighty.”
The elder bowed slightly. “I thank you for this. The knowledge and skill needed for this art, and for applying it to such healing as we are given to be able to do, are not trivial. And yet there is so much still to learn, so much to master, and our time is short.”
A note of urgency crept into the youth’s voice. “I was thinking of this while you were working. So much effort, so much time, expended on one sand painting, only to have a patient wipe it out in a few seconds of smearing himself on it. Is there no way to preserve the painting, so that it may be reused? So that the effort, the time spent on creating each one could be spent instead on gaining more knowledge? Would that not be a blessing on us all?”
The elder’s face darkened, taking on a cast of mixed sorrow and anger. Then, without warning, his right arm whipped out, and he cuffed the boy to the ground with a vicious backhand.
The boy’s response revealed long practice with dealing with being cuffed down by elders. He bounded to his feet into defensive posture, ready to challenge any further assault, but taking no initiative of his own – signaling submission to chastisement, but not tolerance of abuse. It was a dangerous dance, for disobedience and weakness were, alike, death sentences, and he had watched several boys his own age die.
No further assault was forthcoming. The elder merely answered the boy’s question in a flat tone. “No. It would not.”
The boy’s response was tinged with bitterness. “Are you like all the others then? ‘Do as you’re bid or get whipped?’ Is that all there is to ‘knowledge’, to learn by rote what fists teach you, and question nothing?”
The elder lectured in response. “Consider the she-wolf. She has no capacity to answer questions, to offer explanations, yet her pups need to learn what is right and what is wrong, or they will die. If other wolves don’t kill them, their environment will. She has only the tools to make her pups feel what is to be done and not to be done, and the mother who succeeds in contributing offspring to the pack uses those tools effectively.”
“Are we then wolves, who learn only what does, and does not, get us cuffed? Are we not men? Do we not have reason to guide us?”
The elder sighed, his shoulders visibly slumped. “And are you so sure that men use reason for anything other than to justify what they feel and, if they can, to impose that feeling on others?”
The boy challenged, “Is that how you became one of our Great Men, then, and not one of our warrior captains who live by forcing their will, their feelings, on others?”
The elder’s eyes seemed to turn inward. “Logic and reason indeed have power to help men understand the world. But they do not have power to move men to action. It is the constant burden of those who live by logic to report what is true to the people, only to have them reject the report because it doesn’t feel good to them. We are tolerated, and sometimes even called Great, because, on occasion, the logic behind our reports is too powerful to be overcome by feelings, and, on even rarer occasions, the realization that what we say is true happens before it is too late. And then we have to guard against our report becoming a feeling in its own right, itself proof against future reports, based on logic, that might go against it. The burden is indeed heavy.”
The boy’s response was decisive. “And yet this is a burden that I would bear. For if we abandon logic and reason altogether, are we not lost? Already we dwindle year by year, and the sun does not grow dimmer.”
The Great One returned to the present, almost smiled. “Do you truly wish to do this, or”, his eyes twinkled, “do you wish merely to escape another beating?”
The boy considered briefly, and then answered, “Yes.”
The smile on the elder’s face brightened, as if, in the boy’s answer, he was revisiting when another youth had given the same answer to a Great Man. Then, abruptly, the smile vanished, and the hint of a tear appeared in the corner of one eye, as the youth grew through manhood towards elderly, and learned, year by year, the costs of his answer. He turned away, and walked towards the east wall of the depression, growling “Come, then, and learn something”.
When he reached the wall, he sat down. The boy stood before him. “Sit”, the elder commanded. The boy, astonished, nevertheless quickly accepted the honor, adopting the cross-legged posture of the elder man, now his teacher.
“You asked why we could not preserve and reuse the sand paintings, why this would not grant us time for learning. I will tell you what the ancients taught us. For they, indeed, asked the same question that you did, and strove to answer it. Strove mightily, for they sought to preserve as much of the work of human hands as they could, for as long as they could, in order, they thought, to learn from those works and build upon them. Huge buildings they built, for no other purpose than to preserve the works of human hands. Whole tribes of people worked in these buildings to preserve the works. Wars would come, and fires, and pestilences, and whole peoples would die in them, and yet the ancients mourned most greatly the loss of one of their storehouses of human labor, when it occurred – which it did frequently.
“But the day came when there was no more room in the buildings, but people insisted on keeping the things they had made anyway. So they invented ways to preserve things on machines – memory machines. Memory machines that no longer took up as much space as the buildings, but consumed much more of the energy that people produced in order to make things and, once made, keep them. Or, if they were not deemed to be worth keeping, to throw them away into great piles.
“The Earth warned them that the energy that they were putting into keeping things was doing it harm. The wise among the ancients, using logic, warned that harming the Earth would harm them, and that humans could endure the hurt far less than the Earth could. But humans, feeling that keeping their things, and doing all the other things that they spent energy on, was too important to let go, that the hurt from the harmed Earth would be far less than the hurt from not doing whatever they wished, whenever they wished to – and above all, the hurt from not being able to keep stuff.
“They are now gone, and all that they built, all that they worked so hard to keep. We are left to endure what they wrought.
“In the time of the ancients, the mountains that we know as dry and barren were wet and lush. The winds pushed against them, dropping the water they picked up from the ocean onto them, and it ran down their sides and past our dwellings in deep flowing rivers. Now the winds come from the east, and what water they carry falls on the side away from us, and we hope that our few remaining wells do not fail us utterly.
“In the time of the ancients, the sea by which we live was a great lake, with sweet water and abundant fish. People swam in it, drank it, used it to water the crops on the few days when the rains did not fall. Now the lake has been swallowed by the ocean, which is dead and stinks and is good only for dumping unclean sand.
“In the time of the ancients, the people would rejoice when the sun appeared, temporarily driving away the rain clouds. They would dance naked under its rays in celebration. Now, we cower from its deadly heat for more than half the day, every day throughout the year.
“It may be that, in time, the Earth and the gods who tend it will forgive us for wreaking such hurt upon the Earth. It is, after all, us, not them, who have received the true hurt. If they do so, it will be a lasting forgiveness only if we forsake the urge to keep the work of our hands, and instead let all we do pass in time, as all else on Earth must do.”
By the time the elder had finished, the sun had sunk far enough down in the west so that humans could once again venture out of doors, and use the last hour of light for essential chores. The Great Man and his new pupil left the depression, and headed down the wide black way, side by side, towards the village, their scanty evening meal, and their nightly rest.
As they did so, they passed an object on the side of the road with strange markings on it that none now living knew what they meant.