by Peter Byrne
(Swans - March 26, 2012) Why do they hate me? I don't hate them. At the moment I'm too busy defending myself. Anyway, the first thing I learned in C.E.O. basic training was that the account books have no column for hate. It simply doesn't pay.
Things were different when I first came to the village. They sniffed me over like young pups, greedy but cautious. The Hunchback was first in the welcoming party. He came down the zigzag path falling all over himself. He couldn't walk and smile at the same time because of his one short leg. But he tried, and I gave him credit for his grimace.
The rest of them were just as thrilled. The crowd opened up to let old Beanpole through. He couldn't wait to tell me about the uniqueness of the village. I bent an ear. They could never say I didn't listen to them. To begin with, at least, I was truly interested. Wasn't I an exploring entrepreneur who needed to know their background? However, their story lost its zip after the first few times around. That's the way with creation myths. Afterward it was simply repetition and pretty flat with the suspense gone. That was their way in the village, repeating themselves. They had been doing so forever. Naturally I stopped listening and outlined some changes that ought to be made.
On the path that morning I was awesome news that opened their mouths so wide they couldn't get them grinding again until mealtime. I pointed to the Old Squaw's place up on the hill and said she'd asked me to take it over and I'd agreed to help her out. This seemed to shake the ground beneath their bare feet, but my diplomatic training came to the rescue. I assured them that Old Squaw would always have a place on the property. That left me leeway and a comeback if they griped about the lean-to I intended to put her in against the outside of the high wall I envisaged.
When the villagers managed some control over their jaws, I judged them ready for innovation. I'd been explaining while walking at my usual brisk pace and stepped into some fresh cow shit. Beanpole looked genuinely embarrassed though I saw a smirk on the face of the Redhead, a snide youth who stood behind him. No fear, said Beanpole, the village would offer me a free shoeshine. I told him I'd appreciate any help but he, as top man, should learn another lesson. There were places I'd been where they harvested those pats. Shaped into blocks they served as fuel. I let pass Redhead's murmur that because of all the brushwood available the one thing the village didn't need was more fuel.
My shipment arrived shortly. There was some bother getting the sealed containers open. The villagers offered the crude solution of beating on the metal sides till something gave. Diplomacy came in handy again -- it would do me yeoman's service here, at least to begin with -- and I persuaded them to back off while I unhooked the explosive can opener from my belt. I followed with a quick pep talk on how they should aim to learn something new daily. It was no good saying hourly in this clock-less place. Their dependence on sunrise-sunset nonsense would have to go.
Getting my equipment up to the Old Squaw's place took too long but went without serious mishap. I remembered those movies I loved as a boy, the ones that had gallant adventurers opening up murky corners of the planet. There were always long files of natives in loin clothes with their shoulders bent under the necessities of the expedition. They moved forward slowly, sometimes encouraged by a whip. If one of them fell by the wayside another would be ordered up and loyally double his burden.
The village too had an abundance of potential workers ripe for service. For a start, though, I only employed the locals as porters. Their minds weren't ready for industrial work yet. They still didn't understand the need for a steady cadence in any common effort. They would regularly put down their packs and go through the rigamarole of their religious observances. This I saw was going to work havoc with any acceptable production rhythm. For the present I restarted the carriers each time with the assurance that nothing interested me more than their gods, which I looked forward to boning up on one day. On their side -- it was only fair -- they would have to learn to keep moving and worship mentally while they climbed the hill. I don't know if they understood the details I gave them of how much energy they wasted by putting down their packs and having to lift them back again on to their shoulders.
Up on the hill I kept Old Squaw quiet by presenting her with a state-of-the-art pepper mill. It was the Rubik's cube solution and kept her busy. She would never get used to having unfamiliar workmen around. I had to bring them in from another village as the locals were so slow in shaping up. Old Squaw's visceral xenophobia at least made it easier for her to understand why she would henceforth enjoy reduced rent in the brand new lean-to on the other side of my wall. I was surprised she hadn't shown more respect for this imposing structure. After all, the wall was the first monument to modernity in the region. I noted that the imported workers had already taken to calling our village the walled city in their strange dialect where the same word meant village and penitentiary.
Then politics arrived, which neither the villagers nor my outside workforce had a name for but should have been the same word as inefficiency. The Hunchback with his crooked walk occasioned the flare up. But it was Redhead, quite able to walk a straight line unaided, who actually lit the flame.
I put my plan to them at our first village power-breakfast, a novelty I'd brought in as soon as my wall was gaited. I laid on all the pancakes and maple syrup any villager could possibly need to start the day. That they never scoffed anything in the morning but a pulpy mess of weedy greens and unleavened bread was a bad habit they would have to rid themselves of. It annoyed me to have to waste time with dietary talk, but they couldn't do a good day's work on such fare. Of course Redhead put his cent and a half in. Something about there not being a maple tree within five thousand miles of the village.
But, rather astutely, I made that my cue. We were going to eliminate miles and bring the world together. I kept it simple. The village lanes had to be straightened and enlarged. As it was, the miniature donkeys they favored for transport could hardly be maneuvered up the hill. Beanpole, who still felt he was somehow in charge, looked shocked. But he always had that look when he cranked up his thinking. His cogitation ended in the suggestion that we start using the tiny donkeys earlier, before they were full-grown. Prepared for this sort of idiocy, I smiled and started all over from the beginning.
I told them that the village now possessed an official Handicraft Center. It was the manufacturing unit operating in Old Squaw's graciously ceded property on the top of the hill. Production was already underway thanks to the cooperation of workers come from some distance to help. It was only our first instance of bringing the far and the near of the globe together for the stimulus of all.
Since the presence of these outsiders caused our villagers some concern, I added the good news that the men of our village, if they too chose the delights of mobility, would be welcomed in the distant village. The urgent need was to get more raw material up the hill. A production line couldn't start and stop. Lulls waiting for bales of jute or a load of pumice stone were costly. Trucks couldn't make it through the present web of kinky paths. I unveiled a work schedule where there was a place for everyone in the construction of the new road. They would begin next morning after a lavish breakfast, again offered by me, of warmed-over pancakes.
There was some perplexity. By the next morning's get-together it turned into opposition. Though Redhead served as spokesman I noticed unanimity on the faces of the squatting figures. The overalls I'd issued dribbled crumbs of their gutless bread smeared with that green stuff they started the day with. Untouched, the pile of pancakes stood high. I took one and neatly spread it with syrup though I usually keep away from sugar at breakfast.
Redhead's line was so ridiculous I was taken off guard. They weren't going to straighten and widen the paths, which had to stay as they were because -- who would believe this? -- the movement-challenged among them needed narrow passage ways with many projecting corners to grip on to as they helped themselves with their hands to limp or twist along up and down the hill. As two cases in point, Redhead singled out Hunchback and Old Squaw, both of whom gave a little wince of pride.
At first I feared the time had come to remove my humanitarian gloves and show some knuckle. But that could be expensive. Instead I spread my arms in an inclusive come-all-ye and, shedding a tear, reproved them for not having made Hunchback's problem mine. I'd arrange for corrective surgery to his faulty limb without delay. They would all see what the first world had to offer them. Hunchy should pack his bag. I was calling in air support.
So they began chipping away with half a heart at a new road to the hilltop. Old Squaw was miffed at having been relegated to second in line behind the Hunchback. I countered by insisting that her problem was arthritis, which it may well have been, and could be medicated comfortably in her new sloped-roof home.
The Hunchback was seen off on donkey back in an atmosphere that was almost festive. He would rendezvous with my people down the road and actually end up in a genuine cut-rate hospital we'd set up. The success story would make a fine press release. Hearts and minds of our patriots back home would be wowed like when our Special Operations heroes assassinate an evil individual abroad or plant our flag on the top of a mountain some dark-skinned crank had the mistaken impression belonged to him.
Old Squaw unfortunately turned out to be a malade imaginaire. I dosed her with the classic sugar pills but that only whet her appetite for more. My talk of arthritis had made her aware for the first time that her bones actually came together in joints ideally meant to swivel and turn with ease. Her constant thumping on my wall for medication began to upset our factory routines. I finally shut her up with a five gallon can of the de-wormer liquid I'd had sent out for the village donkeys.
Work on the road was getting nowhere. The villagers seemed to think that just putting on the official overalls constituted their daily stint. I concluded they wouldn't make much progress up the hill until the Hunchback, who was a kind of mascot, got back. I informed my people at the hospital end to do a quick job on him and never mind the frills.
To speed up the road work I dispatched a dozen of my outsiders from the factory to stimulate the local workmen. It was a solution straight from the manual. The competitive element, one team pitted against the other, completed by rewards and especially punishments, would energize everyone. But these yahoos had never read the manual or anything else. What is more the Redhead was claiming, fraudulently I'm sure, that he had a second cousin in the village the outsiders came from. This lay the foundation for an alliance between the two places. It was like a couple of labor unions amalgamating to form one big obstacle to efficiency. Beanpole was also becoming a pest. He would come up and natter with Old Squaw trying to find a way into her arthritis deal. Then he would waste my time at the gate in the factory wall gassing about the Hunchback.
Well, Hunch did come home but not on the back of a donkey. My hospital people had put him in a chair with wheels and conscripted a dunderhead to push him. The villagers, intrigued by the coupling of seat and rollers, gave it all their attention for the first day. Only on the second did they realize that the Hunchback's crooked leg had been straightened but was as thin and useless for walking as a bug's antenna.
Hunchy's daze could be termed a trauma though that didn't help since the word meant nothing here. I told him that while he himself may have suffered inconvenience he'd seen the world now and, moreover, sat in a chair that would become the community's icon of modernity. The rollers were the devil to use uphill so I assigned a pair of the little donkeys to supply power.
What more did he expect, valet service? I explained that if he was going to get through his dark night of the soul he would have to pull himself together and never look back. Functioning legs were not everything in life. The importance was to go forward. I found a sit-down job for him but he'd have to buck up and face reality. That his pay as a legless employee would be reduced by half wasn't in my power or any man's to overrule. The factory's laws came from the nature of the universe and had to be respected.
The fraternizing mood of the mixed work force, aided I'm sure by Redhead's negative input, brought an end to work on the road. Operations at the factory stalled. Trucks made it to the village but couldn't reach what my freshly painted signs called the manufacturing zone. I wasn't going to let the humors of the crowd defeat my tight schedule for modernization. As more highly placed and more duty burdened men than myself have declared: All options were on the table.
Since path straightening and widening had been rebuffed, I blasted a thoroughfare through the hive of hovels on one slope of the hill. Proper warning had been given to the inhabitants the day before. To those who enquired about where they would abode henceforth, I was able to give a pleasant surprise. They would be living in a brand new dormitory that they would be building in the heart of the manufacturing zone, i.e., beside their factory workplace within my sturdy wall. Their problem of coming in every morning on time would therefore be solved. They could get rid of those piddling donkeys that encumbered their existence. This last remark was a psychological direct hit. I knew it would be easier for them to accept the giant step in village progress if they knew it resulted in partying over a mass barbecue of their tenderest little friends.
Not that all kinks had been ironed out of my globalizing operation with the finishing of the new and straight road uphill. The trucks rolled to and fro now but some atavistic impulse kept village pedestrians from putting a foot on the new pavement. The two or three accidents involving jaywalkers couldn't explain the taboo. I tried to unstick their mindset with a power talk over tea and biscuits but wasn't understood. The locals looked blank when I reiterated my promise of traffic-free pedestrian ways as soon as village development had entered the ultimate stage. The perfidious Redhead had the gall to suggest that paths exclusively for walking were what they had enjoyed before I arrived in the village.
Another drag on progress was the arthritis scare, which had reached epidemic proportions. Alas, these backward folks began the hard slog forward to meet civilized standards by adopting our worst traits. Young and old, they were all hypochondriacs now. My informers told me that the word allergy had actually entered the local vocabulary. How I regretted my strategic error of silencing Old Squaw by telling her she only had arthritis. I confess to having ignored the principle that if you name a malady everyone listening will claim it as his own. Medicating her with the anti-worm remedy might have slaked Old Squaw's thirst and got useless drums of the stuff out of the way, but it also started a trend. When the whole village was convinced it had arthritis the demand for the vermicide began to upset work schedules. The smelly liquid may or may not have been addictive but it was considered by all to have magical powers.
I was faced with either importing more of the deadly placebo or facing serious disorder. Not for the first time I made the heroic choice that was also the only one in accord with modern business practice. Donkeys, and therefore their worms, had been phased out of our renovated community, a move forward I'd reported with pride to our home office. There was no way I could now justify a huge order of a vermicular poison for beasts of burden. To explain the entire misunderstanding to headquarters from the first introduction of the word arthritis onward would only make matters worse. Hadn't I been drilled as an apprentice globalizer never to use words with simple folk that would start them thinking?
Giving too much thought myself to this dilemma I have refrained from action. Then, tonight, a dark night, the drums began to beat up and down the hill. The villagers have come and gathered around me paying more attention to my person than they ever have in any meeting I summoned them too. It appears they have organized some sort of power banquet. The actual food hasn't been seen yet. But they seem to know what they are doing.
Our rule is always to start talking first and never yield the floor. So I've begun an informal lecture on civilization. After some hard discipline it's time to enhance village self-esteem. The faces around me in the shadows would seem to wish it. I begin on a jovial note and explain how their likes were once maligned by their more sophisticated cousins. Primitive they were called and made the object of absurd caricatures. I recalled in my childhood coming across a vile cartoon. This featured a very large cooking pot over a fire with a missionary or an explorer -- some educated person come to contribute his know-how -- trussed up in the boiling water. My point here, I tell them, is to show you how wrong this perception of simple people awaiting development could be. Anthropologists soon cleared up all that ignorance.
I stop for a moment to consider my audience. I can see Beanpole who appears much less diffident than usual. The Hunchback is there though the rollers on his chair seem to have gone awry and been replaced with sled runners. Redhead with his spiteful sneer is here. In fact he, or at least his hateful snarl, has multiplied. I see it on many faces. I can't locate Old Squaw at first. Then I see her off beyond the crowd where her half demolished lean-to stands. She moves about more spryly than she used to. Could she have cured her arthritis? Why would she be feeding the planks of her modest but cosy home to a bonfire? I'm beginning to think I should open a question period now and give the villagers a chance to express themselves.
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