The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Allegory of Law

Once, when the world was young and there was little to tell or remember, there was a land where only good people lived: people who only thought and said and did good, who had never harmed one another.

Now it happened one day that a man found his fields torn up and another man told him that vermin were abroad in the woods. So he dug pits and covered them over to catch the vermin so he could take them somewhere they would do no harm.

But there were no vermin. The man who thought he saw vermin had seen only shadows and branches swaying. What had ruined the fields was something else. When the man looked in his traps in the morning he cried out and wept, for his traps, which would have caught and stunned vermin, had caught and killed three children.

There was no justice in the good land, because there were no offenses; there was no one to say Punish and no one to do punishment. But there were the stares and silences of three families. So the man with the field walked into the woods one day, and did not return.

That man had had children of his own, two sons; and these children, too, were stared at and not spoken to by three families; for these two children reminded them of the dead children; and no one in the good land knew the hiding of pain, no more than the hiding of any other feeling; and they could not lie.

Two of the three bereaved families had children, a daughter for each. The daughters stared, but were not silent. The sons of the man of the field reminded three mothers and three fathers of three dead children; but they reminded the sisters of when they had not been alone. So they kept secret company, and grew close.

When they began to appear together, all were pleased by it. The silence was over.

As they grew older, they grew closer, until one of the daughters was with child. All had been pleased; and now all were delighted. Every family in the good land found some separate way to approve and applaud.

But when the day came, the daughter bore a dead child. Before the week was out, she followed it.

Then all were silent in the good land, yet there was no staring. All knew that something was broken, and no one knew how to fix it. They could only hope that if what was broken was not touched, it would heal.

Three families gathered together and wept together. They went to the living daughter and made her swear not to speak to the man she loved.

The son who had been a father wept and cried out; and his brother also wept, for now they were both alone.

Three families went to the son they had warned against, and told him that there must be some danger in his blood; that he should not come near the daughter again; and that they had dug a trap to keep him away, for he was as deadly as any wild animal that kills.

He watched his bereaved brother weep, and tried to comfort him; but he had no comfort, and he needed comfort himself. So, being young and strong and scorning danger, he went to see the daughter he loved.

He fell into the trap and was pierced through with spikes.

Three families wept at this; but what else could they have done?

When the people gathered the last son rose and spoke:

“I was a son; now I am no son, for I have no father. I was a lover; now I am no lover, for I have no beloved. I was a father; now I am no father, for I have no child. I was a brother; now I am no brother, for I have no brother. Three families have taken all these things from me. I was a son, a lover, a father, a brother. Now I am nothing and no one. They are sick. They killed my brother as though he were an animal, which is the worst thing that anyone has ever done. Send them away, do not let them return. They are sick.”

One of the mothers of the three families rose and spoke in turn:

“There is in truth sickness among us: sick blood, poison blood. It killed three children. It killed our daughter and our grandchild. We did not kill. We set out a trap and gave warning. Animals are not warned. That man walked into the trap as his father walked into the forest. He did not mean to return. Send this man away while there are still daughters among us.”

No one knew what to do then. Sometimes the people had talked over things, like where to dig a well, or when to hunt or harvest; but what could be said about this?

So they went to the oldest and wisest among them, and said to him: “Be our king, and decide what we should do. For we have never doubted before who we trust.”

Then the king said: “There will be no easy talk nor free looks among us while any of them are here. The three families shall go west, and the man alone shall go east.”

There were caves in the west and caves in the east with clear water and good hunting. In the west the three families received many visitors, for they had ties of blood. Their daughter, who remained among the people, often came to see them. But in the east the last son was alone. No one visited him.

After years he could bear the quiet no longer, and returned from the east.

Now the king had said that the last son should not be permitted to return – meaning that he should be persuaded to stay away, and that no one should help him. But when he was seen returning some young men determined on their own to carry out the king’s order. They stood together in the way, shoulder to shoulder. When the man tried to walk right of them, they stepped into his way; and when the man tried to walk left of them, they stepped into his way. He shouted, but they did not answer. And when he tried to push past them, one of them pushed back.

The man was not old, but loneliness and despair had shrunken his hunger, and he had shrunken with his fasting. So when he was pushed, he fell; when he fell, he broke; and when he broke, he died. But none of them could say who had pushed him.

The young men carried the body to the king, who wept at the sight, and told them that he had never meant for them to kill. But it was too late; and so that the king’s word would hold, the young men took the dead son east, and buried him near his cave.

When the news went west, the families smiled among each other; which had never been done before at any human death. When they returned, no one tried to stop them, because they feared what might come of that. At first the families were not seen among the people, nor by daylight; but soon they began to walk abroad and in the sun, in defiance of the king’s word.

So the king asked them to come to him. They came, for they expected that his word would be lifted. But he said that he could not let them profit from killing. He told them to go back.

Two families assented. But one family would not be separated from their daughter. They refused the king’s word. And when the other two families saw the refusal, they refused as well.

When they left him, the king began to think. He spent the evening in thinking. The purpose of a king was to prevent killing; but still there had been a killing among them. Now the king’s word was refused. If killing could happen while the king’s word was received, what could come of the refusal of the king’s word? What good is a king if he allows profit in killing?

In the night he walked the streets, and chose six young men – the young men who had heard his word before – and told them to wrap their faces and swear to forget. That done, the king told them to bring the three men and three women before him at a high place above a long fall into deep water.

The king told them that they should leave, and go where none of the people would ever speak to them again. They laughed, and said that it was better to live among human faces than in the caves of the west.

He asked again: “Will you leave? It is my part to prevent killing. By staying you profit from killing and approve it.”

They refused. “We have never killed.”

So the six masked men took hold of them and threw them over to vanish in the water. When no one saw the families, they believed that the families had received the king’s word and returned to the caves of the west.

After that, there was beauty, and peace, and happiness; but in that land where only good people had lived, now there was silence in the caves, and a question no one dared to ask, and between the people and the king were men with secrets in their eyes.