The Changing of the Guards
It happened rather suddenly. Time struck the Earth still, overhauling its inhabitants skin-side out.
He walked into the tiny tavern, apprehensive of His audience but conversely confident in His purpose. Completely oblivious to the reception He would receive but perfectly willing to wait for the one He wanted. The crowd was small and merry in that naïve, frivolous manner that only crowds tend to be. They would have to do for now. The best beginnings are always humble and He could make something of this rabble, of this He was absolutely certain. So He approached the nearest table and sat opposite a desolate looking youth who seemed almost as lost as his age demanded of him.
“Incomplete, isn’t it?”
“What?” the youth murmured sullenly.
They were a number now, twenty nine to be exact. It was always easy to spot when an idea was catching on. A tantalizing buzz simmered silently in the atmosphere as every head bobbed up and down in unison, acquiescing without reservation to everything He put forth. Yet, He still approached with caution, knowing all too well the cosmic consequences of a hasty entrance. He was well aware that real allegiances always sprung from that one ephemeral triumvirate: courteous courtship, supercilious sagacity and carefully cultivated fear. They were still raw and skeptical, frequently hounding Him with the Whys and theWhens. That would all soon change but this, this was the time to keep it simple… true even.
“You are all equal and you all deserve to be treated the same.”
He neglected to mention that ‘equal’ and ‘same’ weren’t exactly the same thing. Equal was how they ought to be treated and sameness was a state contrived to conveniently keep them under control. Luckily they never really bothered with semantics. That made His job easier than even He could have anticipated. It had always been there and now He could practically taste it: a desperate yearning to be part of something that would allow them to escape their own little worlds. That was what really made them so easy to manipulate: they were always waiting for an out, any out. And all it took was convincing one of their ranks – truly, deeply planting the seed. It would sow and scatter itself.
He had picked a good host.
Soon enough, however, the host began to develop his own ideas. It had always proven to be a problem with operating from among them. They couldn’t help but improvise and place themselves at the center of every equation, even equations designed to resist a center. Much of it had to do with their blasted call for constant attention. Some might argue that He sponsored the sentiment from His own desperate neediness. This was why He was inherently incapable of indulging any argument… ever. So far, however, the only changes He could detect were relatively minor. A mere matter of the Man confusing his own mortality with the Voice’s omnipotence. It would have to do.
At the end of the day, they were each born with the innate capacity to take what He gave them without question – programmed as they were, to receive more than give. It prevented them from having to figure it out for themselves. It saved on time and responsibility and it motivated them all the same. It worked. And there was absolutely no conceivable reason to question it. He loathed curiosity. Always struggling to identify that infernal congruent where the first Why cropped up in their vocabulary. He figured that He had managed to stamp it out of most of them, but like a putrid habit of mind, it always had the power to arbitrarily pop up in some obstinate reprobate. Still, He figured that the ones that stuck with the Whys would be bred out eventually. Their presumption would never be tolerated by the rest.
A river of souls as far as the eye could see.
The men walked in front. Their chains gleaming, molten in the blazing midday sun as they murmured the Words the Man had given them. The Words helped lull them all into a complacent haze, one that now bound the land. The Words inspired a distinctive brand of drowsy comfort that was impenetrable. Some would come to call it security. They murmured incoherently under their breath as they trudged their way up the mountain day in, day out. The women were bound in ropes behind them. They were clad from head to toe in dark drapes: their eyes shut, their minds shut and their mouths shut. They did not murmur the words, mutely following the followers.
Among the legion, two had been overlooked. They scampered in and out of the Man’s presence never straying in his line of vision long enough to be given the message and handed the rules for their initiation. They were young, innocuous and rather easy to overlook. The Man eventually decided to just let them be. Two children, a boy and a girl, could hardly be of any consequence to his cause.
They couldn’t change anything.
The girl never understood any of it. The rules, the unending routine and the eternal obedience were suffocating. And all so they could supposedly survive something that would someday prove to be ‘eternal’. She refused to believe them when they insisted that being miserable now was the only way to be happy then. Where ‘then’ was they never knew and it was nowhere in sight.
There were so many things she felt ashamed of and she was never able to understand why. She felt ashamed for wanting to be pretty; she felt ashamed for wanting to talk to the solitary boy who roamed the camps; she felt ashamed for wanting; she felt ashamed for not believing the Man who stood on the Mountain and professed to deliver them from their pain; she felt ashamed for discarding the answers he gave to the questions they never asked while avoiding the ones they did.
She felt. And the feeling was always shame.
And so she did what those who ‘feel’ shame do.
All she really knew for a fact was that the truth got you killed and a lie could guard against death.
She knew how to lie and lie well.
The boy had observed a kind of knowing in her quiet subversiveness and it haunted him. It was subtle but he somehow managed to pick up on it. Perhaps, because he had been searching for it. He felt that his hunt for another had finally ended. Being free had proven to be a rather lonely business. He observed a stoic resentment in her stance and he had carried that around in his chest for weeks. So he nurtured the hope of her with him every day as he sifted through their shadows across the timeless landscape.
Occasionally they asked questions. On such rare occasions, the Man always responded patiently, “because He commands it”. This always seemed to answer all their reservations. It calmly polished over any itchy doubts. He never understood why they could never comprehend the blatant farce, why it simply didn’t compute. Surely, so many different questions couldn’t possibly have just one answer? It wasn’t even an answer, truth be told… it was an even bigger question. The boy knew then that the Man must be very clever to know how to answer all questions with one answer and still be believed, revered even. So he held on tightly to his questions and guarded his doubts. His curiosity always seemed trivial when set against the Man’s one infallible answer.
She was different. She never expressed any curiosity in what the Man said and seemed awfully content to blend in with the landscape. Whenever their eyes happened to meet across the crowd he saw that she didn’t believe the Man either. Neither did she care about what the Man had to say about Him. Yet the curiosity spilling out of her eyes could hardly be contained. It contained questions of a different vein altogether, something he didn’t think he would ever be able to fathom. A deep yearning to understand the ‘underneath’ of it all. A penchant for coveting mysteries rather than solving them and still scale every treacherous depth. That quest practically blazed through her. It was too real to be taken in with one universal answer or any call to obedience. It was what had stopped him in his tracks that day by the trees when he saw her come out of the lake. Not her naked breasts or her beauty but her irreverent curiosity. He had never witnessed it in anyone his age. They never looked at anything like that. The children did but they always lost it, usually around the time they learned to speak. A child would ask its first question and they would counter the curiosity by binding it within the knots of tradition. The tiny glimmer of self would dim immediately until it faded completely.
Everything rested on control and they agreed that the control was all about power. Power had always been a problem with their kind and so it seemed the safest course to give all of it to something that seemed more powerful than power.
Even if it wasn’t there.
A day came when they had been marching for what seemed like a thousand years but was probably much more. They moaned and complained now and they no longer felt the glistening devotion for the rules that once united them.
The boy and the girl had known from the beginning that no matter what the Man said or what the Man said He said (they could never truly understand the difference) none of this had ever been about change. In fact, it had been about not changing, about standing still for all eternity. They just accomplished stillness by constantly moving – trudging forward with each aimless step. It was all about following so they could remain in a convenient stasis-like sludge that would flow in whatever direction was demanded of it.
They never saw it, they couldn’t and the boy and the girl had learned to keep silent over the years. The pair of them soon noticed that as ritual began to lose its luster, the men and women grasped on to the chains even more desperately. Now wearing them like garlands wrapped tightly around their necks. They had even deluded themselves into thinking the cuffs were studded with diamonds. The women began to view the ropes as yards of silk.
Obedience was an integral part of the service demanded of them. The boy often asked the girl if she thought it would be better if they just ‘believed’ like the rest of them. She could never comprehend the question. The only absolute she could conceive was ‘feeling’ and she saw no alternative. They always approached the quest as they would a jigsaw puzzle, gathering a trinket piece every few decades.
They never solved it.
The Man always kept himself at a distance. He feared that mingling with them might somehow corrupt his purpose. Over the years he had begun to forget much of what that purpose was but one thing he did remember was the part of his instructions to make every last one of them follow the Words. Sometimes he still felt a twinge of unease about the boy and the girl he had lost in the crowd all those years ago.
Over the years he had begin to notice how they would all occasionally lose sight at a moment’s notice and break rank. They had even begun to ask some of their old Whysagain, which always reminded him of the two young ones. The boy and the girl were hardly any kind of tangible threat, but he found himself unable to shake the Voice’s warning about not leaving anyone behind.
Truth be told, he could no longer see them. Over the years the pair had become invisible and neither he nor any of them had been able to locate them in their midst. Still, he was sure of their presence. He knew they were still there, skulking silently among the legions. Their presumptuousness was a perpetual pressure choking his heart, silently mocking everything he said, did and would come to do.
A minute, a millennia: it had gone on too long now to be traceable in time. The path was carved in concrete, deep and consecrated by the footprints of the following. Its legitimacy was its depth. Its longevity was a testimony to its strength. They had always been susceptible to the notion that if something was old enough it ought to be kept that way, just because someone else had at some point in time kept it that way. The Man became a legend of insurmountable proportions. They still followed in his tracks and left a place for him at mealtimes. Many would argue that he was more powerful as a phantom than he had ever been alive.
They had never really been a species conducive to change. And whenever change came it hated having to deal with them, because of their ingrained immunity to all its beautiful intricacies. They sat and slumbered nearly oblivious to change as it enacted its subtle dance in the backdrop of their days, always longing in vain for a rapt audience. It was nearly imperceptible through the fog of absolutes. Yet every hundred years it wafted through the land without fail because there were two who welcomed it. Two, who spent those centuries waiting for it. The boy and the girl were the only ones who recognized that change was the only thing that didn’t. And so every hundred years they were reborn in silence to counteract this force for that generation. Every hundred years they were allowed to utter one sentence of their truth. Some listened, most turned away, others pelted them with rocks but between the both of them they had only this one privilege. That every hundred years, they were granted a moment where they could speak and be heard.
They always resisted. Some were broken by that resistance but most of them were frightened by it and broke others in turn. The Don’ts and the Can’ts were a habit of mind by now. Even though the boy and the girl no longer hid in the shadows, they were still not openly mutinous. They waited still. For their sentences to collect in the well of consciousness and time, until there were pages. And someday a book to counteract the Words.
Their book would map the span of thought. It would be a book of questions, not answers.
Every hundred years, He would tally the numbers and there was a birth of a smile which never carried to full term. It never prospered long, for every hundred years there were those two; always staring up at Him, blatantly defying His inevitability. Every hundred years, they refused to adapt and bow their heads. He sometimes felt that the boy and the girl saw Him clearly from their pitiful position and it always made Him profoundly uncomfortable. None of them ever saw Him or dared to even want to.
Sometimes He found himself feeling jealous of their odd brand of belief. What else were they searching for when they could actually see Him? They were not blind. Why then, did they not believe?
Every hundred years He would ask them. “What makes you think you can possibly win?”, and the boy and the girl would smile and echo in unison, “You do.”
And every hundred years, He felt a terrifying twinge of Doubt.