Friday, February 17, 2012

A Fable of Mud

Feb. 17, 2012

I wrote the following during the presidential administration of Bush the Shrub, but it has become a propos of our general condition, though a new fable is due, perhaps adapting Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom of dreamers to a new kingdom gripped in restless and perfervid nightmares.

A Fable of Mud
       The Land between the Great Waters was in decline, though a decline so recent that its inhabitants could barely sense the apex from the gentle slope of its failing hegemony. Gallantly, or wickedly, the mountains, forests and the sweeping pastures of its many regions had been wrested from their primordial rulers not so many generations earlier. A wise warrior had been the Land's king but a mere decade before, and all the world had made a jealous nodding of the head toward his dominance. But now his son, the wittol, bound by the surreptitious chains of his conniving seneschal, lolled in the White Palace while the blood of his people stained the sands of foreign satrapies.          
Invaders, warlike from the start, the Neapores had first spread their ways to each corner, each shore and valley of the Land, destroying all the ancient folk who would offer resistance. Necromancers were their priests, and their religion was the transubstantiation of all substances to gold. At this unholy practice they already had excelled. But then a great discovery was made, a substance which could be transformed into the likeness of all other things, a substance of more worth even than gold. And yet it was no more than mud.        
Fine silks no worm had ever spun could glitter with more jewel-like brilliance and more airy lightness than ever before. Gauzy curtains, robes that tantalizingly revealed the form beneath, heavy draperies and rich stuffs could make the poorest wight within her modest hovel able to afford the splendor that had dazzled only eyes in kingly courts before. The tough hide of beasts, which had been worked to suppleness in ages past for sandals for the pacing feet of peripatetic philosophers, or boots for climbers of the rock-strewn, craggy mounts, was now replaced by the magic of the mud. Crystalline seeming bottles that, unlike crystal, never shattered and were so light as to weigh hardly more when filled than the weight of their contents, were called into existence by the necromancers of the mud. The very timbers of dwellings and all in the dwellings, medicines and foods were crafted from the mud. Such was the genius of the mud’s magicians, for, by making everything out of the substance they controlled, they gained complete power, not only over matter, but over life itself.        
All that the necromancers made they made at first cheaply. By intent, first they made the poor dependent upon their largesse. Then gradually, as the making of the more costly and less useful articles of the old fashioning became abandoned, they controlled everything for everyone, except for a few rich, sentimental renegades who still favored the “natural” substances. But they were forced to pay dearly for such stubbornness.        But we move forward in time too fast. In the early years the mighty mud had not revealed its protean nature. That was only teased from it by learned incantation, sorcery and, above all, alchemy. No, its first manifestation was both glorious and ominous. It glowed with brilliant gusts of flame. The first sorcerer who harnessed it with magic spells and vases made impervious, tempered its flames to a softened glow to drive away night’s darkness. But soon other magi found its bursts of fiery violence an inspiration, and confined the refined essence of the mud in small prisons of steel where, transformed to a million toiling mechanisms, it was made to turn wheels, powering vast mills and swift chariots.        
Again, of course, the magi saw to it the magic of their mud and its attendant devices were less costly than the age-old mechanisms they replaced. The stately horses which had given the Neapores their strength for all the millennia past were no longer bred, except again by wealthy sentimentalists. And even the wealthy, they most of all, were susceptible to the allure of greater speed and strength that the refined mud made available to them.      
 Decades went by. The prevalence of the mud, and all the magi made from it, had spread quickly beyond the Land between the Great Waters. Geomancers elsewhere called up from the greedy inspirations of their brains new and finer mechanisms, substances and creations, all dependent on the elixirs derived from the mud. Magi over the entire planet became focused on the extraction and the uses of the mud.       
From whence came this mud? For it was of a special nature not to be found everywhere. Tapped by narrow delving wells, it sprang and surged up from the depths of time, from death, decay and all that was most sinister deep within the planet’s foetid crevices where life had flourished once and died and decomposed in foulest stench and been healed over by the rising crusts of scabrous rock and sand. Needling into those foul grooves of life’s failure in far antiquity, the magi had released the putrefaction and, in the innocence of their greed, had made it their god: the Creator of all they had, the motive force of all they did, the source of all their power.       
 But their god knew from whence it came. It did not serve them but to spread a deadly blackening over the small planet that was the home of all that was alive, the floating, isolated sapphire sphere that hung and spun its beauty and its fragile richness in the vastness of eternity and nothingness.        Barely waking to the knowledge of the suffocation they, and all they ruled, were suffering, the magi, governed by the wittol king and his wicked seneschal, clung still to the source of their power, and warred to gain control of new sources of mud.

The blue planet grew black and died.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series