A short story by David Ottvall
Note: This story contains some peculiar grammar. What could seem like a grammatical error appears in the very first sentence, even. This is intentional and integral to the story, which deals with how humans of the far future might understand themselves and the world, and how they might think of us.
The People was Singing, sitting in circles around the fire. It was beautiful. It was the ritual Singing of the World, the Singing of the People, each and every voice contributing, joining in, jumping from note to note in cascading harmonies, different timbres from children, adults and elders, men and women, merging to bring forth the words of the Song, the whole greater than the sum of its parts, as always. The Song soared towards the heavens along with dancing flames of crackling fire. Yes, it was beautiful, as always; beautiful indeed.
Yet, Joleanna realised that she was trying to lose herself in the Singing, that she was trying to become one with all in the Song, trying to be one with the People, as she had always been one with the People, as they all were one and the same, each different, but all the same. Yes, she found herself trying, as she had never tried before. As she had never had to try before. It used to come naturally, without effort, as it should. But not tonight. Tonight, for the first time, Joleanna felt slightly apart from the People. Apart, not really a part.
Here, the whole village was gathered. Everybody. Every body. Together, as one. Hands holding hands, thighs and knees touching, all very close, warm and safe; circle upon circle around the fire, everybody Singing, in this village as in every village of the People across the land. Yet, Joleanna experienced a slight distance between herself and the others. It was nothing she could have put into words, had she wanted to. It was unfamiliar and disconcerting, for just a moment, then it was gone, though not completely forgotten, as she managed to lose herself in the greater whole after all, embracing and embraced by the People in the Song.
After the Singing came the Telling, upon a short silence, in which the People wordlessly decided who should do the Telling this time. There was always some hesitation and anticipation, the sounds of crickets stridulating and fire crackling suddenly very audible in the night. Then somebody would feel the urge to Tell and rise from the crowded circles, to voice and word the World and the People. This time it was Andrea who rose and began Telling the Story. Anybody could Tell, and each Telling was different from the next, but the Story was always the same. This time, Andrea chose to take it from the very beginning, indeed, from even before the beginning.
Before there was anything, was God, and God was everything. Before time and space, there was only God; no light, no darkness, no place, no nothing; only God, the one Eye, with nothing to see. God was a single thought, aware of itself and nothing else. Almighty and alone, God was miserable and lonely, longing for love and communion, wishing for World and People.
Powerless in pointless omnipotence, God exploded with love, and the World was born. The one and only Eye was shattered in all directions, where there had been no direction. The one divine thought expanded with the speed of light, where there had been no light. Creation took place, where there had been no place; it took time, where there had been no time.
In all this, God remained the same, the divine Eye spread over distances without meaning or measure, the divine thought stretched over millennia, present in every little fragment flying ever outward; in all this, God was still all and alone. Within the divine scattering, a gathering began. The tiniest pieces of God was attracted to each other and bonded to form larger bodies. Stars and planets were formed from the dust of God. From the scattered pieces of the one Eye, other eyes emerged. And they were evil.
While the divine Eye saw everything and loved all, each evil eye had a different vision, confined to its own narrow point of view, and the eyes warred with each other.
Joleanna listened to Andrea’s Telling. The Story of the People was familiar and well known to her. While the words would differ from one Telling to the next, Joleanna had carried the meaning of the Story in her heart as long as she could remember. She had even done the Telling herself on several occasions.
Long before the People, there had been lots and lots of humans, billions even, living on the Earth; lots of people, but no People. There had been talk of We, the People, but each individual had been an evil eye, caring only for itself. There had been United States and even United Nations, but no actual unity. Unable to understand and embrace the true meaning of unity, the evil eyes had all but destroyed the World.
Evil eyes were very clever and very stupid. They built great cities with tall houses that scraped the sky, and they built bombs that destroyed such a city at the touch of a button. They even walked on the moon and claimed ownership of her celestial body. Evil eyes were obsessed with the strange notion of owning. Unable to see that everything of course belonged to everybody, they warred with each other over ownership of anything and everything, even the land itself. As if land could belong to people, when it was obvious that the People belonged to the land, not the other way around. How did they not gather that it was all God, anyway?
Evil eyes had killed each other over mere ideas. Whole armies of eyes had wrought destruction on each other, sometimes over as little as some ridiculously narrow notion of God. The sheer stupidity of narrowing God down in the first place was hard to imagine. How could anybody pretend to grasp the whole of everything? How could anybody claim ownership of God?
Joleanna was interested in history and the ways of the ancients, an interest not shared by many in the village. For centuries the People had shunned ruins of old cities, dangerous places that could make you sick if you dwelled there for long. But time had healed the wounds of the World. Most of the miracles of old had rusted and rotted away, long buried under layers of dirt and vegetation. The evil ways of evil eyes was now essentially forgotten, and what lived on through the Telling could no longer be truly comprehended.
Nobody in recent memory had fallen ill from visiting ancient sites, and the evil that once contaminated these places seemed to have finally succumbed to nature. That Joleanna was busy digging for traces of ancient evil in the nearby ruins, was no real cause for concern in the village. It was a bit odd perhaps, but people were allowed to be odd. For all its unity, the People celebrated diversity. Each different, but all the same, as the saying went. Where evil eyes had tried to force their narrow points of view onto each other, the People knew that individual viewpoints could never be truly shared, only added to each other. The whole greater than the sum of its parts, as always.
Joleanna was not totally alone in her archaeological endeavour, however. Others helped with the excavation from time to time. Reut, Yenna and Ulmar in particular had been very helpful. Ulmar was muscular and strong, always happy to apply his strength, revelling in the physical effort of digging in the dirt, though he cared little for what they dug up. Like Reut and Yenna, he was simply happy to help. Such was the way of the People, after all. Also, Erban in the workshop never hesitated to have a look at Joleanna’s finds, busy as he was fixing tools and farming equipment. Erban was good at coming up with suggestions for the function of a particular object, guessing at what it might be and how the ancients might have used it. She appreciated his ideas.
For one of the People, it was unthinkable to refuse a reasonable request from anybody else. It was also unthinkable to request something unreasonable from anybody. Joleanna could not ask for much help, because her studies did not seem to benefit the People as a whole in any tangible way. Archaeology was a diversion, an indulgence, much like the ornamental carvings old Olger liked to busy himself with, only less pleasing to most people. His carvings were beautiful to look at, for sure, while the shards and artefacts Joleanna dug up were mostly ugly and useless. Of course she was requested to help with various tasks in the village too, and often there was little room for diversions. Everybody did their share of work; to not participate or contribute was utterly unthinkable.
A while ago, Joleanna had made an amazing archaeological find; she had uncovered a collection of discs, each with a small hole in the middle and all extremely well preserved. Like much of what still remained from ancient times, these discs were made of plastic, an unnatural material that, though it neither rusted nor rotted, did not withstand physical wear well, which made the condition of the find all the more exceptional. There were many large, black discs with tiny, concentric grooves on the sides, circles resembling the years of a tree stump. The find also contained a large number of smaller, flat, featureless discs. Erban in the workshop had been almost as excited as Joleanna about the possibilities. While he could make nothing of the flat discs, after a few days he had figured out that the grooves engraved on the large, black ones were actually recordings of sound.
As she lay in bed, in the dark silence after the ritual Singing and Telling, Joleanna could not wait for the morning, neither could she sleep. She was too excited about the black discs. Not only had Erban figured out that they somehow contained sound, now he claimed to have found a way to bring that sound forth from the grooves, too. And tomorrow he would show her. Se would get to hear the ancient sound of evil eyes. If anybody else had told her so, Joleanna would not have believed it, but Erban had a clear grasp of things and loved to solve practical problems. If he made a claim, he could usually back it up.
Underneath this excitement, the unfamiliar feeling of otherness that she had experienced during the Singing kept returning. It was almost nothing, just a slight chill of distance, of being apart, but it contributed to keep her awake. Was the evil of the ancients somehow rubbing off on her?
After a mostly sleepless night of anticipation and unease, Joleanna was struck by disappointment when she found Erban busy with a water pump that needed fixing. The black discs would have to wait, of course. It really should have come as no surprise, since Erban was occupied with such things most of the time, and what could be more important than water? She should be happy that Erban was able to help the village with this essential necessity. Why was she not? When did the evil eyes become so important to her?
Joleanna went from the workshop to the house of herbs, where she savoured the pleasant smells of dried leaves, menthol and garlic, while waiting for Clara, the herbalist, who was giving advice to an old man named Bjorn. He received a small package, thanked Clara and left, acknowledging Joleanna’s presence with nod and a smile on his way out.
“Joleanna! What can Clara help you with?” the herbalist asked.
“This one is afraid that she is turning into an evil eye,” Joleanna said, making it sound mostly like a joke.
Those of the People always referred to themselves in the third person. First person was reserved for plural, unless one was God, the one true Eye.
“Why would you say that?” Clara asked, a small frown of concern on her face suggesting that she sensed something of a serious note in Joleanna’s voice.
“It is hard to to explain, but Joleanna is not sure that she is wholly part of the People any more. Maybe it is nothing, but she can feel a distance.”
“And for how long have you felt this distance?”
“Oh, not for long. And not all the time. Only now and then since yesterday, at the Singing. Joleanna could not help thinking about evil eyes, even in the Song.”
Clara laughed and shook her head.
“Surely you are of the People, as are we all. A little digging in the ruins could not change that.”
“But just now, Joleanna feels unhappy because Erban is busy with an important water pump, when he was supposed to let us hear the very unimportant sound of evil eyes.”
“Ah, you speak of those discs you dug up. Clara has heard about them. Word is that Erban has come up with something really clever there. Clara would not mind hearing the sound of evil herself.
“Why not? This one thinks that very little harm could come from some sound. Tell us, are you truly afraid, even a little, that you could turn into an evil eye?”
“Well, afraid is a strong word, one supposes. We of the People have no reason to fear anything, Joleanna knows, since we always have each other. We are the People, after all, and the People will prevail. But yes, maybe this one is a tiny little bit afraid after all. At least she is slightly worried.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Clara said reassuringly. “If you are at all afraid of becoming an evil eye, then you could not possibly become one.”
Joleanna did feel somehow relieved after speaking with the herbalist, and that night she slept much better. The next morning Erban greeted Joleanna with a big smile and a warm hug when she entered the workshop. She noticed that the room was quite crowded. Clara was there, as well as Reut, Yenna and several others, though she could not see Ulmar anywhere. Not that she had expected him to be there. In fact, she had not expected anybody but Erban to really care about the sound of the ancients. And as far as she knew, he was only interested in the process of coaxing sound out of the discs, not in the evil eyes themselves.
“Here it is,” Erban said with a grand gesture, indicating a peculiar contraption sitting on one of the workbenches.
There, one of the plastic discs rested upon a flat wooden tray. It was anchored with a blunt little peg through the hole in the centre. Joleanna had cleaned all the discs from dirt and dust as carefully as possible, and she noticed that this was probably the one in best condition. The tray could be rotated with a handle and there was a sharp needle attached to a large funnel. Erban placed the needle on the surface of the disc and told Joleanna to turn the handle. A thin sound like small birds chirping emerged from the funnel when she did.
“Slower!” Erban said in a loud whisper.
Joleanna adjusted the speed and what could be heard was clearly music. Varying wildly in pitch and tempo as her trembling hand turned the handle, it was music. And almost drowned in crackle and noise, there was a male voice singing. It was thin and strangled, but coming through. Joleanna steadied her hand and realised that she could recognise at least some of the words, though the pronunciation was strange to her ears. No wonder it was strange, as the voice came from untold ages ago and had lain buried in the ground for only God knows how long.
There could be no doubt whatsoever that this was an evil eye singing, though. The voice clearly and proudly celebrated evil, exclaiming its very essence through every verse. And there was no mistaking the refrain, as the voice defiantly exuberantly proclaimed:
“Eye did it meye way!”
Joleanna heard and understood in her heart what evil was. The Telling had been true all along, of course. Not that she had ever really doubted. But now she truly understood. And suddenly Joleanna was sure that she would never, could never become an evil eye. Evil was a thing of the past and nothing to be afraid of. It was not even interesting. And there was no reason to keep on digging.