They came together to build a home, a town in the valley between the mountains. They farmed the low slopes, and hunted in the higher woods. And each day, they would come down from the hills to enjoy the company of their fellows. All were free, yet bound to each other by chains of their choosing. And in this way, the town prospered for many years.
Then one day two strangers came to town. The people had never seen their like before. The older of the two was tall and gaunt and sad, with the wisdom of the years etched in his eyes. The younger was stocky and ruddy and full of life, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a laugh that echoed from the hillsides.
The strangers asked if they could stay a while. They had no money, they said, nor any earthly goods. But they had insights into life, and those they would gladly share. The townspeople welcomed them immediately, and made them a home in the valley.
A few weeks after the strangers came, one of the most beloved townsmen lost his home in a fire. Most dropped what they were doing, and came together to help him rebuild it. As plans were being discussed, they chanced to pass by the gaunt stranger, who congratulated them heartily – and offered a silent and stern rebuke with his eyes to those few who had not agreed to help.
“I am so happy to see,” said he, “that all of you know your duty so well.”
Duty? questioned the townspeople. They knew the word, but had never heard it used like this.
“You are helping your friend through misfortune,” he said. “That is good. That is a fulfillment of your duty to him.”
No, replied the townspeople. It is a fulfillment of our love.
The gaunt stranger shook his head sadly. “I see,” was all he said. Then he turned and walked away.
No one realized that he was leaving until he was already packed, had bid his stocky friend farewell, and was on his way out of the town. They followed him, asking him why he was leaving.
“I came to such a beautiful community,” he said. “I came to a place where men helped their brothers, without need for asking, without cause for complaining. I stayed because I thought, this must be the most perfect town on earth…this must be a paradise, where all these people know their duties so well that they perform them as naturally as breathing. I see now I was wrong. This place has been tainted for me; I must go.”
Very well, muttered a few. But most begged him to stay and teach them of these duties, that they might become the community and the people they should be.
Over the next weeks, he did so. He told them that when they came together, they had assumed responsibilities toward each other, without even realizing it. He told them that when one needed help, they must drop all and pitch in until their brother or sister was restored. He told them that they could call upon each other, and expect an answer.
They labored to put his insights into practice. The next time a misfortune happened, its sufferer called on the help of the community, not from their love, but because he was owed it. And the people came and helped. But as time went on, and the lessons of duty sank in, the town changed. Most began to silently, sullenly resent the demand of something they would gladly have given for free. And so they gave it less freely. The help was a bit slower to come, the townspeople bit less enthusiastic, and the efforts a bit less thorough. But they performed their duties nonetheless, and the gaunt stranger praised them for it. So they knew they had done right.
Not long after, a family living on the outskirts of the valley suffered one catastrophe after another. A wall caved in. Their prize pig got sick. Their livestock broke loose. Their crops began to fail. As the woman pled in the square for help to a sea of impatient faces, the stocky stranger (who had been standing nearby) suddenly laughed.
The townspeople asked him what was so funny.
“Think about it,” he replied, still chuckling. “Have you ever heard such a tale in all your life?”
Well, no, they all said.
“Isn’t it—” and here he chuckled again— “isn’t it just a little bit funny?”
The townspeople stared at him blankly. In truth, they didn’t really want to help the woman…they knew they would be called upon to do so, and they would feel duty-bound to respond, which was exactly why they didn’t want to help. But they didn’t see the amusement in another’s misfortune, and they said as much.
“Oh, good grief!” exclaimed the stranger. “Life, my friends, life is sometimes crazy, and sometimes cruel, and sometimes simply ridiculous. The best thing to do is to make sport of such moments. Otherwise this world can be a miserable place to live.”
And then he told the tale the woman had just told. But he exaggerated everything, invented events from wholecloth, and played it all for comedy. It wasn’t just that the wall had fallen in, it was that a pair of neighbors had caught the woman and her husband in a delicate position. The prize pig had gotten sick because of something unseemly that the frustrated man had (and he paused for effect) let loose into the pig’s feed. By the time he was done, his audience was roaring with laughter. All except the woman, that is, who was mortified. And a few, a very few, who grumbled amongst themselves and said that the stranger simply wasn’t doing right.
Everyone still helped, of course. But they did so smilingly, chuckling to themselves all along the way. The family thanked them cordially but coldly, and the man privately resolved that he would sooner bring all those misfortunes upon his family’s head again than help a single man or woman of those who had laughed at him and his in their time of distress.
And, when the time came, he didn’t.
It soon became quite fashionable to make sport at someone else’s troubles; it lessened the bad feelings that exercising one’s duty brought. But after a time, it also lessened the assistance certain people, most prominent among the sport-makers, could call on. People began to knit more tightly to certain friends, and avoid other acquaintances altogether. Whereas the valley had once been a free and open place, it divided into tens of groups, each of which had little or no contact with some of the others. But they were making sport, and the stocky stranger smiled his beaming smile and encouraged them in their efforts.
What once was done from love, now was done from duty. What once was cause for commiseration, was now cause for merriment. This was the state of the town after a year’s worth of the presence of the strangers. This is why we left, those few of us who resisted the strangers’ calls, and moved to a different valley, and endeavored to begin again. The new community we have formed is better than our old one was, at the end. But we fear that we have lost one thing that is irreplaceable…
Ah, well. Its loss did not come without certain compensations. We’ll know better than to listen if they come here to try again.
At least, I hope we will.
Let me know what you think of the story. If you like it, please feel free to forward the link to your friends! If it wasn’t to your taste, better luck tomorrow — a new piece of short fiction goes up every day.