Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Winnie and the Emotional Plague, A Children’s Story

Once, long ago, the plague was unknown in the Land of Shargi-Lala. Everything started the day when the Sorcerer who built puppet-robots arrived. Nobody knew where he came from: some said he had worked in the courts of kings when there were kings, and some said he was a ventriloquist in Vaudeville when there was Vaudeville. He talked about Hollywood like he’d been there, and he talked about people in Northern California at the Institute for Small Machines and the Foundation for Remote Viewing and the School for Future Soul Manufacture, as if he’d been around when they were inventing great things there too. He seemed to know the Prime Minister personally, and he was close friends with the Pope from their remote childhood together in Western Slovakia. He could also talk about dolls from Japan and opera in Germany, and he was soon introduced to all of the best dinner-parties. Although he rarely said anything, it was universally agreed that when he did it was very, very interesting.

It was soon clear that the Sorcerer was a great inventor. He built dolls that could sing five entire operas by memory after spending five minutes alone with the libretto. He built other dolls that rode riding broncos while swinging lassos. There was a little key in the back of every doll where the wind-up works were connected to a wind-up key, and if you wound them up tight, off they went! As the Sorcerer had more success, his ambitions became greater. The puppet-robots were carefully and cunningly made. They walked around like human beings, and they were programmed to say special things. Because of this, a great change would spread over the land.

In those days, the Land of Shargi-Lala had been populated by many prophets. When the prophets spoke, they talked about wonderful things. Nobody knew whether they were really true or not, because the things the prophets said described how the whole world worked, and nobody had ever seen the whole world at once. But the prophets sounded so right, and their words went straight to the soul, so people went on listening to them all the same. The prophets said, “The poor are just like you or me.” They said, “You have to give up everything for what really matters.” They said, “Democracy means that the people, rather than the tyrants, have the right to rule.” Nobody knew quite whether to believe what they said or not, but they said it so easily, so clearly, so cleanly. When a prophet spoke to a crowd, the people in the crowd felt the blood run warm just under the surface of their skin. They felt their lips grow warm and start to bend into a smile. After the talk they’d leave and go out and find themselves peering into the eyes of other people a little more closely. You’d see ordinary men and women, with their aching backs and empty purses, smiling deeply at the boy who poured them a cup of coffee at the restaurant, wondering what his story was; looking at their husbands and wives with more generosity than before. All this the prophets did when they talked.

When the puppet-robots spoke, they also said things that were easy to understand, and again nobody quite knew if they were true or not. But the effect was different. When a puppet-robot spoke, he said things that sounded right about the nature of the universe. The puppet-robots said, “The poor are always going to be a problem.” They said, “You might have to sacrifice those who want to hurt you.” They said, “Democracy is the best system, and so elected officials are always right.” When a puppet-robot spoke to you, you felt sort of like your third-grade teacher had just told you a proverb that was supposed to be true, and you thought to yourself, oh yes, maybe the world is like they say. They began to look at crowds of people and think, we’re all alike and we all have the same opportunities although I suppose I could have more. And then they would think things through a bit more, and would think, oh yes, and if the puppet-robot was right, and there’s only so much to go around, and if other people are all pushing each other, and if this really is the way things work, I suppose I should pay attention so that I don’t slip behind everyone else.

The sorcerer was very clever and he talked to some of the people in power and eventually they saw that if the puppet-robots were put in charge of running various institutions in the state having to do with the sorting of pieces of paper, then real humans would not have to be subjected to cubicles and fluorescent lights. So the puppet-robots were employed throughout the bureaucracies across Shargi-Lala, and they did quite well. They never became depressed or burnt-out after twenty hours of sorting pieces of paper, as human beings did. Therefore the puppet-robots tended to be promoted to positions of power relatively more quickly than their human counterparts.

Time passed and a great election was being held in the land. Some of the people who ran a political party thought that they might put some puppet-robots up. After all they had done so well in the companies, that now many great skyscrapers had puppet-robots in very high positions of power! Perhaps puppet-robots would do very well in the polls as well. After all, everything they said was so reasonable and sounded so normal.

The sorcerer was very pleased that his puppet-robots were doing so well. So pleased was he, in fact, that he spent a entire month that year inventing new toys for his precious inventions, so that when they went to the polls they would not disappoint anyone who believed in them. He sewed them bright jackets and ties with stars and ribbons on them. He made them shiny chrome toupees so that they too could look glamorous on the broadcast debate. And he made glasses for them that would allow them to see into the souls of people who watched them, so that they would know exactly what to say – in twelve words or less! – to every man and woman they spoke to.

It worked like a charm. The puppet-robot candidate leaned over the poor child in the school where other children screamed all day, staring into his eyes through the sorcerer’s special soul-seeing glasses. The puppet-robot candidate said, “We should pay more attention to you. We would change your teachers and measure your tests ourself!” To the skinny lady with bright-colored skin who had just been out of work, the puppet-robot candidate, squeezing her hand, boomed, “The attorneys who should have fought for your rights you were too busy fighting for the rights of fat people. We will fire them and make more jobs for you!” To the fat man who had lost everything in the stock market, the puppet-robot candidate railed, “Your own money would save you! It is not the nature of the universe that a man works hard and profits nothing. We will find our taxes elsewhere.”

That fall, among many marching bands and parades and hustings, the puppet-robots were elected to every office across Shargi-Lala.

The sorcerer was so excited with the success of his metal children that he immediately went into seclusion for six months, inventing every gadget he could think of for his prize children, which were making him so happy.

There were also special crystal lenses, the size of plates. When people outside Shargi-Lala looked into the lenses, they saw their homes smoking in ruins, their naked infants run over by tanks, their dead uncollected in great wasting piles; famines as their countries had never known. But when people looked into the lenses from the other direction, they saw different pictures entirely, and this is how all the people in Shargi-Lala were taught to hold the lenses. They saw pictures of themselves and their houses and dogs and cats and children, all very plump and provided-for. They saw bad people being rapped on the knuckles and sent into reformatories. They saw Shargi-Lalaese ideas spreading through the world, and people everywhere eating ice cream and driving on Sundays!

The sorcerer had also developed medicines for the water and food and air to make the people content with their puppet-robot ministers. The medicines made people very uncomfortable and scared. They worked because, so long as the people were feeling queasy and ill, the puppet-robots could look straight at them with their soul-seeing spectacles and tell them how they felt. It made people feel confident in their leaders that the puppet-robots had such an intuitive understanding of them. The way it worked was this. The people would walk down the street at night and see someone from a different country, who had just arrived and was looking for a hotel and dreaming of a big foamy bubble bath, and conclude that the foreigner must be dead-set on assassination. For reasons of complaints on this order, many more policemen were commissioned during the regime of the puppet-robots than ever before in the Land of Shargi-Lala.

Some people began to think that all this feeling ill suddenly was a little sad, and certainly unlike anything they’d known in the good old days. They didn’t know quite what was wrong, so various people tried to isolate one thing or another. Some of them began to drink bottled water. Some wouldn’t pet stray cats anymore (the doctors said stray cats could carry a virus, although nobody could ever know what it did, and there were no symptoms, still it was good to be careful). Others began to eat special foods, grown under laboratory conditions, so that no strange substances could have entered. Still others walked around with masks on their faces so as not to breath the contaminated air. And some took special pills that made them feel content all the time, as if nothing were wrong.

But most people kept looking at the magic saucer lenses, and congratulating themselves on what a good job the Land was doing in the rest of the world.

Alas, the medicine began to make everyone ill.
The first sign were the hallucinations. All of a sudden, every corner of the Land of Shargi-Lala began to sprout people with hallucinations. Some said that they saw the talking face of Jesus Christ in a tree-trunk, and it told them how wonderful ice-cream was, and how great the puppet-robots were. Others said they had been kidnapped by puppet-robots with shiny green skin. Others said that it didn’t matter what the puppet-robots did for good or evil because they had been told that they would be swept up by a gigantic hot-air balloon and taken off into outer-space while the planet self-destructed. Some said that they saw Blue, the great ox of Paul Bunyan, in the shapes made by the weather-maps on the television, and that obviously meant that the puppet-robots were making the Land of Shargi-Lala the best it was ever going to be and anyone who disagreed ought to be sent to the border!

Then people began to be blind. First they couldn’t see their husbands and wives anymore. They spent all day and all night at their offices, working underneath the fluorescent lights. Next, they started to think their own children were invisible. If their son went out on a date and came back later that evening, he might well find his father staring straight past him at the wall. Finally it was reported that some whole sections of the Land of Shargi-Lala had forgotten that other whole sections of Shargi-Lala existed! The South Coast forgot to deliver grain to the North Coast, so there was a terrible famine. And then the West Bend of the River Nix couldn’t remember that there had ever been an East Bend of the River Nix, and if there wasn’t another side to the river, what was the point of the bridge? And if there was no point of the bridge, it must have been another cock-eyed scheme by some money-grubbing accountant. So one night, with a marching band and a couple of the West Benders marched to the river shore, dynamite tied with yellow bows being carried by every small child, and the whole town stood around and cheered, and then they blew up the Nix Bridge. A great huzzah was sounded as the brick-and-steel monument to the engineering of the last century toppled into the water. It was lots of fun, and ice cream was served afterwards, courtesy of the mayor’s office. After that, the East Benders pretty much stopped talking to anyone who wasn’t from East Bend.

Lots of people noticed something was wrong, as we’ve said, because they were becoming sick and depressed and blind. Nobody liked being sick and depressed and blind, but the puppet-robots had been telling them for several years now that sickness and depression and blindness were naturally-occurring phenomena, which could sometimes be cured with advanced medical treatment. That sounded pretty reasonable and optimistic. So the good people of Shagri-Lala grinned and bore it as best they could. A couple of people took pills until they could see again, and sometimes they had loud marches of their own (no marching bands), but nobody pays attention to a march unless there’s a marching band behind it (and ice cream), so but most people ignored them and went on feeling queasy.

After a while a couple of folks at the Institute for Alchemy had started to notice. Rather, to be specific, a twelve-year-old advanced post-graduate at the Institute for Alchemy, whose name was Winnie, had noticed something. She didn’t like people being sick all the time, and she wanted to do something about it.

Winnie didn’t receive a lot of encouragement, it must be said. The Institute for Alchemical Studies had started admitting girls only twenty years after most normal institutions had, but it was still a very difficult place for a girl-alchemist, let alone a twelve-year-old advanced post-graduate girl alchemist. She was told a lot of things: people have always been sick! Said her parents. Think about your career! You have exams to take!! said the alchemists on her supervisory committee. You should leave this to more experienced alchemists! said the alchemists who weren’t on her supervisory committee. You’re only twelve! Pointed out her fellow alchemy-students. Other scientists reminded Winnie that alchemy was a moribund art, which had never succeeded in turning base metals into gold, and they were suspicious of its present claims to be able to cure social ills, let alone stop such a great thing as a spiritual plague, even if such a thing could be identified in the first place. Everyone had a different opinion, but nobody believed that anything could be done – and certainly not by Winnie.

But Winnie was convinced that a spiritual plague was eating the Land of Shagri-Lala. Every time she read the morning paper, she thought she saw another sign. Somewhere, animals were being mistreated. Somewhere else, kids were still screaming in school, and but now, instead of reading books, the puppet-robot regime had forced them to take endless paper-sorting tests, without which, their later lives were doomed. People were having hallucinations, or going blind, in enormous numbers. Late one night, Winnie took a pad of graphing paper and a packet of crayons, normally used for documenting her precious-metal spectroscopy experiments. She graphed then numbers of people becoming insane and blind in the history of mankind. There were bumps and peaks and troughs and jiggles, but nothing, no nothing, like the enormous rise in blind insanity that had occurred since the election of the puppet-robots. How could this be?

It seemed silly to blame an entire plague on a couple of puppet-robots. Elected officials, after all, don’t brainwash, they just talk into microphones. In general, they can be quite harmless. Winnie knew nothing of the sorcerer’s experiments. She didn’t know about the water supply. Nobody had told her about the experiments with food and air. And there was certainly no way of knowing about the special bi-polar saucer-like lenses, or the soul-seeing spectacles. The sorcerer’s inventions were too numerous and strange.

So Winnie began her experiments. She had a hundred vials leaned up, each of them extracting a different kind of affection. Puppy love went into a pink vial, tied with a bow. Punch-drunk love went into another vial, decorated with glitter. Using fire and smoke to purify the solutions, she distilled into alembics different solutions -- good sense, horse sense, common sense, and incense. She percolated them through filters. She set them alight. She congealed and condensed the liquids, then evaporated and powdered and numbered them. But try as she might, she could neither isolate nor cure the plague.

That night Winnie fell into a deep slumber. As she was sleeping, an Angel of the Lord came down and fiddled with her chemistry instruments. She’d done everything wrong. He reversed all of the connections, rewired the visualizer, liquidized the powders, uncombined the solutions, and set up an entirely different experiment to run on its own.

So when Winnie woke up, feeling soft and lovely, she looked over at the table where she had been working so fruitlessly. There amidst the pipes and computers screens and vials, trapped in a little spherical alembic of glass, was the emotional plague, isolated at last! It fluttered like a moth and hissed like an angry cat, buzzing quite furiously from time to time, before it died down and rested again. In another little vial on the far corner of the laboratory, neatly distilled, was dripping away a bright green liquid, which Winnie recognized instantly: the remedy.

Winnie had a terrible time convincing anyone to pay attention to her. After crying in her room for a long time, she at last went out to the rugby field where a number of her classmates were playing.

“HEY YOU!” she screamed in a terrifyingly squealy voice.
They stopped kicking the ball and came over.

There were six alchemy students besides Winnie: Scrooge, Muffin, Inchy, Binchy, Che, and Nod.

Inchy was an alchemical technological genius. He was nine, and lived all alone in the midst of an enormous warehouse filled with gigantic whirring machines that turned great turbans that blew sweet winds filled with angel kisses over the garden outside where he grew lovely agave and cactus. When he was eight, he had invented the smallest machine in the world.

Inchy listened to Winnie. “If you really do think you have the emotional plague,” he said gravely, “we’d better test it to make sure.”
“It wouldn’t do to be wrong about something like this!” he said.

The Post-Graduates in Alchemy were totally unwilling to test such a vile thing as an emotional plague on their own pet cats, pet mice, cactus, or ficus trees. They couldn’t conceive of any human beings brave enough to test the emotional plague themselves. So they all sat down next to the rugby field and heaved a collective sigh. What were they to do? They sat this way for a long time, wondering what would become of the emotional plague.

“It would be a great pity if everyone went blind and insane,” said Scrooge.
“It certainly would be lonely,” said Muffin.
“I doubt we ourselves could resist it,” said Che. “The plague that kills one kills all.” Che’s parents had been prophets back in the day, and he was famous for saying powerful things just like that.

Inchy and Binchy sighed at once. They were twins, and they one always knew what the other was thinking.
“We’ll do it!” they said at the same time.

So the alchemical students wrote an enormous petition and betook themselves to the Capital of the Land of Shagri-Lala.

They stood on the steps of the Capital of Shagri-Lala for an entire day. Every time a puppet-robot or his attaché would ascend the steps of the Capital, one of the alchemists would try to talk to him.

(to be continued)