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Monday, August 23, 2010

A New Leaf

By Nicholas J. Carter

Ed. Note: This is a response, of sorts, to Franz Kafka's "An Old Leaf." Mr. Carter's story certainly stands on its own, but for a richer understanding of the story, head over to the link and read Kafka's story too.

Much has happened since our ancestors drove their herds from the motherland, and perhaps every successive generation is to blame for the changes that have occurred in our absence. We were so late in returning! The strangulation of the proud-backed forests and comely hills we never thought possible. And why should we have? The other lands through which we have driven our horses, our sheep and our cattle have always been clear and full of beautiful grass for them to graze upon. Had we come back to this land a century ago, even a decade ago, we would surely have found the area clean and lush.

Now we are trapped. The squatters that occupy the motherland have left scarcely any room for us. I have no space to work and insufficient tools for my trade. Our smiths sharpen and repair what instruments we have, but even when we do this for sixteen hours a day our swords just become duller and our spades even more broken. It seems impossible, but they do indeed break more every day. One would think that after a certain point they would be as broken as they could possibly be. It is as if our labor simply drains into the ground.

The squatters have crowded their houses—those giant, inhospitable stone squares—so close together that each sits like a brick in a great wall, and the only room left in the settlement is an empty square with an icy-cold fountain in the heart of the town. Strangely, only a few thin alleys branch from it, and these confusing paths invariably only circulate back to the square. Those rat-like squatters can find their way around this warren easily, it appears, but it is impossible for us to leave.

We can’t comprehend how we even arrived here: one moment we were on the green hills and this place was a grey speck on the horizon, and next we were tangled in its paths. Nobody knows how anyone could make sense of this place. Frequently, we see new faces appearing and disappearing in the alleys. I get chills when I think of how many squatters there must be. It’s as if new men and women are grown daily, rising up whole and complete from the earth itself. There must be more and more of them every day but it is impossible to tell; they wear their homes like snail’s shells. Usually, only a few venture out at a time.

There is one exception to this: they emerge from their homes each morning and quietly and industriously clean away the vegetable plots we have arranged and fertilized. These people can’t be reasoned with or spoken to. The noises they make—these must only be noises, for they are far too sibilant and suspicious to be a language—are angry ones. Their wide eyes go full white in their faces until they resemble fried eggs. At first we attempted to communicate by doing the same, thinking that this was part of their language, but the squatters only become angrier and angrier until, fearing for our safety, (even a mouse must fight if it has nowhere to go) we would swing our horse-whips around to frighten them off.

If only they could understand that we are willing to share the land. More than willing to share, eager even, but that they are also expected to share. They cower when we enter their homes even though we only take food—which we must because we cannot plant anything, and have already had to slaughter all of our meat animals—and we always say please and thank you, even though they don’t understand, but the politeness is what counts. They are invited to browse our tents for anything they need, of course, or they would be if only we had something to give, and anyway we probably have nothing they want. We hate to borrow. First and foremost we do not want to appear as beggars, but we also don’t like their food. The people here are ravenous meat eaters. There is little grain and few plants; they snatch these morsels away to stuff into their animals until they are so fat that you might think they would explode. And so even our horses must be fed meat, while their horses are so fat that they are useless for any sort of labor.

A fat butcher occupies every second building. The other day, one of these butchers sent us an ox to slaughter rather than doing the work himself. He must have expected we would take it anyway. We must ask that he never do this again. How were we to butcher the animal when our camp is cleared away each morning, when we have no wood for fires, no way make or repair our tools, no room to work? We watched as several of our hunters tried anyway, hewing the beast apart with swords so notched that they resembled saws. The ox fought back with the most awful braying and crying, and the little squatters hid behind their walls, terrified of the sound, so none of them witnessed the ox kick three of our men to the ground and subsequently trample them before falling over from its wounds. Beast and man lay together in a heap, the former covered in ragged marks that resembled animal bites.

Beyond the gates of their leader’s home many more soldiers are appearing now; their coats are red and speckled with gold, their shoulders are squared, the crests of their hats a heavy, mournful blue. Each soldier carries a spear that breathes fire, and the spearpoints are sharp as dragon’s teeth, like those an ancient hero sowed into warriors. And yet they are afraid of us! Of us! The least of their men is dressed like the best of ours, in leather and fur that shame our leaders. Our shaman, our head warrior, our chief all mope in their huts; none of them willing to leave. We are told to go on with our work, as if we even could, for we aren’t up to the task on this hard ground and with the constant interruptions from these rodent people. We have no wish to stay but we cannot go because they have deprived us of the means to feed ourselves. And even if they had not done so, this labyrinth in which they live eternally confuses us: we ride away only to find ourselves riding backwards into the path opposite the one from which we left. Without leadership, our salvation is left in the hands of herders, milkers and sheep shearers. We aren’t capable of fighting, nor would anyone suggest we ever were. We are trapped in the city square, squatting on our useless hands while the least efforts of the least of these people have proved the ruin of us.