by Joseph Hirsch

An itinerant surveyor pays a visit to Pangaea, a small Utopian village that has asserted its energy independence from the savagery of its petrol-based neighbors.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



Shortly after waking with the sun, Coodah made his way up the spiral staircase to the balcony of his unfinished timber house. He wore only his terrycloth bathrobe, which was open at the throat, revealing a set of binoculars strung on a leather thong necklace.

He grasped the binoculars and held them to his eyes. Beyond the windmills (which were eight in number and stood over fifty meters high) there were rollicking green hills, with tiny thatched huts plotted in the verdant defilades, spreading as far as the eye could see.

The village of Pangaea was surrounded with one thin layer of concertina wire. Four guard towers were plotted equidistant from one another, at the corners of the unmapped hamlet. Sentries were posted one to each perch, unarmed save for spyglasses. Coodah, by joint decree with his wife Lillian, had forbidden any form of weaponry in the small utopia.

That same decree was heavy on the mind of the stranger now making his way to the foot of the northwestern-most tower of the compound. Citizen Maeland flashed a solar panel toward the mayoral house in deference to Coodah, and then greeted the well-worn traveler.

"We've been waiting for you," Maeland said. He fitted a thick leather glove on his right hand, and began descending the rungs of the ladder nailed to the side of his guard tower. When he had reached the bottom, he grabbed the single strand of wire and brought it aside for Carlton, who switched his olive-drab canvas bag from his left to right hand. He was a fat man, and traveling seemed to have exhausted him.

"Ah," Carlton exhaled, as he entered the compound. "You should have known that nothing could keep me from my duties."

"Not even the Gassers?" Maeland challenged, as Carlton entered the camp, and he secured the concertina behind him.

"Gassers?" Carlton asked, contentiously. He nodded toward the old man, surrounded by his battery of whitewashed giant stilettos. Both men looked up toward the mayor, as he spied on them with his binoculars.

Carlton said of him, "If he fears the Gassers so much, why doesn't he let you carry firearms?"

Maeland laughed and ascended his post in the tower, adding as he went, "I guess Coodah thinks they're running out of gas."

"Oh, they might not have enough to run a car," Carlton admitted. "But they have enough to burn this small village." The humor was suddenly drained from the conversation. He drank in the serenity of the place, so different from what he had endured over the course of the last few months.

A bearded gentleman caught Carlton's attention as he crossed his path. The man plucked at some hand-hewn lute hybrid that he had probably carved from local wood. Beyond the musician, a few acres of irrigated crops gave off a molting, autumnal odor, which the golden sun heated to ripe perfection.

There were no farm animals, he noted. They were vegans who eschewed both firearms and meat. If the Gassers ever made it here…

He tried not to think about it. He instead focused on the windmills, which had been the brainchild of Mayor Coodah, who had used salvaged scrap metal left over from the remnants of the U.S. Army (along with propellers and reconstituted motors from ancient commercial airliners) in the construction of his beloved mills.

According to the old man, the windmills provided for all of the town's energy needs, and Coodah's ingenuity had been enough to earn him a seat at the head of the village council.

But the answer to the village's prayers may have come with a poisoned caveat, one that might eventually prove more dangerous than the edict against guns. That remained to be seen, and that was why he, Carlton, was here.

Once Coodah had spotted him, he left his place at the balcony and began his descent down the spiral staircase. He then made his way past his wife, Lillian, who was preparing a barter offering for the itinerant surveyor. Coodah lifted her hennaed locks and gave her a peck on the back of her neck, before jogging outside to greet the visitor.

"A hearty hello, wayfarer." He smiled, wiped the air with his open palm, and clasped Carlton's hand in his own.

"How do?" Carlton asked.

"We've seen worse days," the mayor announced, opening his generous arms wide to display the expanse his peaceful fiefdom. The village was now in full swing, brought to life by the arrival of a new face.

Children chased one another, starting a pickup game of tag as a pretense to get a closer look at the new man. He gave them even more reason to be curious when he finally opened his bag, and made his way to the foot of the first windmill.

He gazed up at it, standing there like a totem supplicating at the foot of a merciful god. Its rotors chopped the air lazily, in slow counterpoint to the brass rooster weathervane some fifty feet below it, swinging creakily on the roof of the mayoral house.

"And you think," Carlton began, removing his RADIAC from the bag, "that there may be traces of uranium in the base?" The mayor moved closer, partly to get a look at Carlton's tool, but mostly to prevent his constituency from eavesdropping. If they thought that the windmills were somehow dangerous, his powerbase would dissolve beneath him.

"Well," he said, "after the coup, when the U.S. Army disbanded, we raided an armory. I've heard that some of the tanks contained depleted uranium, and I thought"

Carlton shook his head, interrupting the mayor. "If this had been England, yes. But this was America. Very rarely do I encounter depleted uranium in old American surplus tanks. All the same." The surveyor dowsed the wand over the base hull of the windmill.

The RADIAC didn't make any noise, not even the smallest Geiger chirp. Carlton turned it off. "Nothing," he said, smiling. The mayor returned his smile, hiding the depths of his relief from both the surveyor and the onlookers.

"Well, then." The mayor placed his arm over Carlton's shoulder, and steered him toward the rear of the house. "All that remains to be tested is the water."

"And not a moment too soon." Carlton said, wiping beads of perspiration from the flabby protuberance of his double chin.

He shifted the load of his canvas bag, and uncapped his deerskin canteen. "I'm quite parched."

The men walked toward a creek. The water flowed sonorously and unchecked, lubricating moss-covered rocks and catching golden light from the spilling orb of the sun. Carlton dipped his canteen until the bladder was full.

Then he put it to his lips. Coodah watched him, confused. "But you haven't even checked the purity yet."

Carlton smiled, and as water dribbled from the sides of his mouth, he said, "Iodine tablets." Then he took another draught, his head tipping in full profile.

He capped the canteen and added, "As for you, and the good folk of your town." He fished through his bag until he found a roll of litmus paper. Then he undid a strip, and placed it facedown into the rippling water.

The men waited a moment, Carlton scrutinizing the colors of the paper, Coodah lost in a deeper reverie, the kind that had motivated him to his present station in the village.

"You know," he said, "someday I'm going to head all the way to the Coast, and I'm going to see the ocean. And I'll try to accomplish with hydroelectric power what I've done with the wind."

He pointed proudly up toward his skyrocketing children. Then he looked back to Carlton, who seemed more bemused than impressed. "Conquer the seas, huh?"

The mayor winced, taking some sort of secret umbrage. His tongue lolled in his mouth, searching for diplomatic reserves before he attempted to speak again. Then he said, "'Conquer' is the wrong word. We have no desire to 'conquer' anything."

That sinking feeling hit Carlton again, the same one he had felt upon admittance to the small town. This man, this mayor, wouldn't make it to California without a small army.

They had built a beautiful little town here. But they had apparently forgotten the larger world in the intervening, peaceful years.

And the world was bad. There was no other way to put it. And there were no flowery, altruistic alternatives that could be cultivated outside of this small utopia, whose border might as well have been protected by tissue paper, or beautiful origami, waiting to burn in the wake of the Gassers.

Carlton knew it was none of his business, and that he was here to take readings and take readings only. But he knew that he would be derelict if he didn't try, at least once.

"You know, sir," he said, taking the litmus from the creek and wagging it in the air so that it would dry, "You should really consider arming yourselves. If you would be willing to build a turbine, a prototype for a tribe fifty clicks south of here, they would be willing to barter for"

"Nonsense," the elder said, waving the spurious offer away with one hand, closing the matter for good. Carlton felt his heart sink into his stomach, acidic ulcers pummeling into the organ like a fist. He had tried and his offer had been rejected. But at least there was some good news to report in the color.

"The water is good," he said, smiling wistfully. The elder returned his smile, and all around them the townsfolk beamed.

Back at the main house, Lillian of the gray henna locks offered them up a cornucopia, proudly displaying the contents of the basket to the men. Coodah explained the items one by one to Carlton, who accepted it all gratefully into his hands.

"This," Coodah said, "was all grown in my wife's garden. The sun dried tomatoes were my only contribution. The flax seed will do wonders to fortify your constitution. I can guarantee you, Mr. Carlton, that as long as you make the sojourn to Pangaea every fall, your immune system will be iron-clad for the long winters ahead."

"Thank you," Carlton said, hefting the bag, clutching it in front of the twin bandoliers formed by his canteen and canvas bag. He gave an obeisant half-bow to the couple and tried to match their smiles, beaming until his ears twitched. But he found that he couldn't genuinely radiate the kind of warmth that seemed to come as second nature to them, and to most of the citizens, who followed him on his way out toward the gate.

All but the most obstinate children had given up by the time he made it to the concertina wire. He shooed the two boys away, for he would need no extra eyes or ears around for his next proposition.

He walked to the northwestern-most tower, the same one where he had entered. There he stopped at the foot of the scaffolding, and began digging through his bag.

The guard, noting his desire to break camp, sheathed his eyeglass and began descending the tower. "Leaving so soon?"

"I'm afraid so," Carlton said. He found what he was looking for, while the guard continued to speak.

"It's just as well. An overnight wouldn't guarantee you anything. All of the women are betrothed. My wife Heather has a sister somewhere in California, but that's mighty far away."

California again, Carlton thought. Then he pulled out the gun. The guard's eyes widened in their sockets, and he became indignant. "You've violated this town's edicts by not declaring, then surrendering your firearm. You know that no weapons are allowed in Pan"

"I don't like guns, myself." Carlton said. "But take it. Consider it an inoculation against the forces that want to destroy what you have built, here in this town. No one has to know." He whispered the last pleadingly, and pressed it to the guard's chest.

Maeland took it, sensing in the tone of the surveyor's voice something he wished to impart besides the gun, something that made the ugly piece of metal feel necessary.

"Thank you," Carlton said, quivering with relief before he departed. Maeland once again began scaling the wooden planks nailed to the outside of his post, heavier now a weapon. The gun was smaller than his spyglass, but it weighed on his conscience like a lodestone boulder.

It dogged his mind until he was relieved for the nightshift. His replacement was a teenage boy, whose only distinguishable features in the moonlight seemed to be a prominent Adam's apple and a hooked nose.

The poor boy would have only a kerosene torch to guide him through the long shift. The NVG goggles from the ancient United States armory had broken down long ago, their lithium-green lights fading to dimness. Coodah, operating under the assumption that sheep had keen night-vision, had begun dissecting a lamb's eye in the hopes that he might somehow isolate the faculty with which the animals had been blessed. But his researches had yielded naught thus far.

The mayor and his wife were now presently in House of Worship, burning incense at the altar of their pantheistic deity. The church was located at the center of town, a strange Quonset hut whose sides and roof were composed entirely of solar panels.

Both sat on threadbare prayer rugs. Lillian's legs were folded beneath her in a crossed yogic pretzel, while her husband, twenty years older and less limber, sat on his knees. They held hands and stared at the bronzed caste of Buddha, a blissful and overfed contrast to the gaunt and agonized Christ, who was nailed to a cross a few feet above the Zen deity.

Despite the gulf between the two gods, Buddha didn't seem to gloat so much as serve as a counterpoint to the suffering Man-God, a hedging of polytheistic bets on an afterlife whose pondering made less and less sense, as the man and wife approached the middle of this millennium. Perhaps, in a few hundred years, as Mankind moved toward the end of the third millennium A.D., Jesus would come to reassert himself, gaining converts with the end-of-timers, in a full swing of the pendulum. Time would tell, and they would be long gone.

On the other side of the village of Pangaea, in the only other hut still glowing with lamplight, Maeland lay twined with his wife on a bed of straw. Their two sons were asleep in an adjacent room, warmed by Domingo, their faithful Labrador, who was asleep at the foot of their own bed.

Maeland's usually affectionate hand was now occupied with gripping the crosshatch of the gun that the surveyor had left him. His wife was asleep, lost in dream and oblivious to the torment playing in her husband's mind. If Coodah or any one of his surrogates found out about the gun, all four of them could be banished.

Domingo's sudden barking tore him from his thoughts, a warning bayed more succinctly than anything that could have come from the guard-towers at this hour, when spyglasses were about as useful as soothsayers.

"Maeland," Heather moaned, still half-lost in sleep. The straw underneath the thin sheets rustled as she shifted, her nose crinkling at the disturbance.

Maeland stood, and began making his way into the adjoining room. The walls were built of heavy clay and there was little risk that Domingo might wake the neighbors with his barking. But if the dog didn't shut up soon, both of the boys would wake.

"Domingo!" Maeland hissed. The dog continued barking, facing in the direction of the moon, which was hidden by the walls, given a slim silvery admittance through the one window in the house.

But that wasn't moonlight drawing Maeland's eye, or his hand, which still unwittingly clutched at the revolver. That was another kind of light, too bright to be the sun, or even fire. It was a light so old that time had rendered it new again.

The light flashed from something that looked like the tanks Coodah had scrapped to build the windmills. Only this wasn't a tank. It was something Maeland had grown unaccustomed to seeing in motion. The sight of it moving was as galling as witnessing a statue brought to life.

The Hummer did circles around the windmills. Three or four men with weapons (guns much larger than his) stood outside of the car and fired up into the sky. Faces appeared at windows bearing the harried, fearful expressions of cornered rodents. Only Maeland's face held anything different.

At least, that is what he imagined as he began to make his way out of the house, instinctively drawing back the hammer on the revolver, moving to the overhanging eaves of his own hut, where he hesitated. He couldn't go any farther. The sight before him was too disgusting.

Somehow, in the time that had elapsed between the end of his shift and the beginning of the teenager's (the boy was now probably dead), the marauding Gassers had roused Coodah from his meditation and climbed the scaffolding of his windmill, with the poor mayor in tow. They had proceeded to tie him, one arm to the rotor of a turbine on the left-hand, the other arm to the windmill on his right.

Then, as they looked on and cackled, spotlighting him in the beams of their SUV, they had watched as a crosscurrent draft tugged the windmills in two different directions, forcing the rotors to twirl and spin like the heads of maniacal flowers in full bloom. The mayor, screaming in agony above as his wife wailed below, found himself torn into two pieces, a red flowing zenith spilling down onto the Gassers, who lapped up his blood like the hungry dogs that they were.

It was a bitter, ironic defeat for the man to die that way, at the hands of his own machines, his beloved windmills. And it had been too much for Maeland, who finally found himself running, storming from his small home.

He fired shot after shot from the unfamiliar weapon, the smell of flint and cordite sparking in the air, felling one of the four Gassers, scattering the remaining three back to the Hummer.

They pulled off into the night, leaving muddy burnout in their wake, the heavy treads of the tires making light work of the single concertina strand, as their headlights faded into the hills.

Once he had fully emerged into the center of the town, Maeland saw that all four guard towers had been razed and were presently burning. He gave instructions for the gathering townsfolk to draw water from the creek that the surveyor had so recently blessed.

The people obeyed, docilely submitting to the orders of the man who now found himself forced into the role of leader. He had been propelled from the title of mayor to the wartime titling of King, in the space of one breath.

He didn't want it any more than he wanted that smell, which he found more noxious than the odor of the burning cordite. He had no name for it, and the only people who could have placed it as carbon monoxide were both gone, one to another village, the other to another world.

Whoever wasn't presently engaged in quelling the fires at the distant towers was now gathering around him. And Maeland wondered why.

Was it the way he had asserted himself in the aftermath of the events? Was it the simple fact that he had shouted, and shouted loudly? He would have liked to have flattered himself, chalked it up to charisma, feeling the narcissistic blush of a compliment even in the midst of chaos. But he knew his answer, and hated the reality of it in his right hand.




Copyright © 2008 Joseph Hirsch

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Joseph Hirsch: I was recently granted an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. I now live peacefully in Columbia, South Carolina.

I was recently a finalist in a “Glimmer Train Short-Story Award” competition. Five of my previous short stories were published in “Underground Voices Magazine.” Some of my work will also be featured in an upcoming edition of “Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction.”

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