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The Rag and Bone Men

26th October 2017
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Title: The Rag and Bone Men
Author: Algirdas Jonas Budrys
Summary: Unfortunate castaway! Marooned far from home—with nothing to share his loneliness but humans!
Word count:  2956
Public Domain Mark (PDM)

Image:  Galaxy Magazine February 1962

 

The other one—Charpantier, he called himself—he and I were going back up the hill to the Foundation, carrying our bags, when I happened to remark I didn’t think the Veld was sane anymore. (I call myself Maurer.)

Charpantier said nothing for a moment. We kept walking, up the gravel path between the unimaginatively clipped hedges. But he was frowning a little, and after a while he said in an absent way: “Now, how would one determine that?” He looked straight into my eyes, which is something that has always upset me, and challenged: “I don’t think one could.”

I felt the shock of inadequacy. Words come out of me—perfectly accurate words, I know; but I never know how, and sometimes when asked I forget.

Now I must be very lucid; I must be his kind of man, I thought, and picked my way among my words. “These things he’s had us get,” I said, putting the burlap bag down and stopping so as to hold Charpantier in one place.

“He wants to build something unEarthly,” Charpantier said, annoyed because I was playing his kind of trick on him, and so baldly. “What standards do you propose to judge by?”

But I was right and he was wrong. Now it remained to make him see how. “Yes. He wants to build something unEarthly. Out of Earthly parts. He wants to take six radio tubes for an Earthly radio, three pieces of Earthly Lucite exactly 1/4 Earthly inch thick, a roll of Earthly 16-gauge wire, a General Electric heat lamp, and all these other things—the polystyrene foam blocks, the polyurethane plastic sheeting, the polyvinyl insulating tape; what have you in your bag, Charpantier? Out of all this, he wants to make a Veldish thing.”

“He’s spent years learning about Earthly things,” Charpantier pointed out. “For years, we’ve brought him books. Men. Everything he needs. Now he’s learned what the Earthly equivalents of Veldish materials are, and he’s ready to make his new transporter.” Charpantier had a dark face—dark hair, dark beard, dark eyes. When his dark brows drew together it was easy to see that his best expression was dark scorn.

“I think he’s desperate,” I said. “I think he’s learned all he can. He’s learned what the nearest Earthly equivalents to Veldish things are. And he’s learned that all Earth can give him nothing closer. I don’t see how he could do better. Even he. You cannot make apples of cabbages. But he wants to get home—you know he wants so much to leave here and get home—and now he’s desperate, and is going to try making a new transporter out of materials nothing like those in the one that broke and marooned him here.”

“And it won’t function?” Charpantier asked. “There is that risk. But why shouldn’t he try? What’s insane in that?”

“I fear it might work. I fear it might work in ways a transporter should not.” And I shivered, for if I say something I feel it, and I do not feel anything I don’t believe is right. I have been wrong, but not often … or perhaps I forget.

Charpantier smiled. “How should a Veld transporter work?”

“That’s not the point!” I cried at Charpantier’s obstinacy in being Charpantier. “I don’t have to know. The Veld has to know, and be insane enough to try something different. Look—” I said, searching, being my own kind of man, now, and letting the words come straight from the images in my head. “Assume a man. Assume a man stranded on an island, for years. Assume he has ways of realizing his heart’s desire, if only he can find the things to work with. But it’s a small island. And while it’s a good island how can it give a marooned man not only comfort but heart’s desire? He searches. He perhaps send messengers, if he himself cannot penetrate the jungle; such messengers as he can command. And, in the end, after years, he knows he cannot have exactly what he wants. But he can have something very near it. So, in the end, he takes a rag, and a bone, and a hank of hair—”

“And makes a woman?” Charpantier laughed. “If he fails, what of it?”

“But if he succeeds, Charpantier! If he succeeds!” Couldn’t he see? “What sort of woman?”

Charpantier looked at me for a moment, but I hadn’t made him see. He saw only me, and I had taken up his time without delivering value. So he chastised me.

“The Veld made me and you. Are you dissatisfied?”

He had that trick, Charpantier. If you tried to give him a problem he couldn’t solve, he gave you a greater problem of your own, to add to the one you already carried.

I picked up my bag and followed him up the hill to the Foundation, where the Veld timelessly waited.

It was dusk, and as I walked I turned my eyes up to the stars. One eye was larger than the other, and a different color. My nose sat askew on my lumpen face. Though Charpantier was a hunchback, and lacked a finger, still he was a handsome hunchback. But I, whom the Veld had made second, with Charpantier’s example, was merely whole. And from my eyes, tears.

We entered the Foundation. It had been erected around the Veld, when he first came and there were men who could question.

Now the building was neat and kept up, but all its many rooms were empty, and all its many machines were still. Charpantier had his cottage on the West—a very learned man had used it, while working with the Veld—and I had mine on the East, where a military commander had kept his family.

The Veld lived in the heart of the Foundation, in the odd-shaped room whose walls traced the configuration he had been forced to assume when his broken transporter had interrupted his journey between—where?—and the home he pined for. Men came from the town below the hill to care for the building, but Charpantier or I had to go fetch them. They no longer questioned. They distressed us with their constant need for commanding, and so every time they were finished with their work we commanded them homeward. No Earthly creature lived on the hill.

The Veld was kindly, but an end comes to kindness. The time came when the questioning of men would have led them, if answered, irrevocably into Veldish ways.

It was perhaps a kindness, too, that the Veld did what he did to questioning creatures. But however it may have been, now there were only men to be commanded. Charpantier commanded in the West, and I in the East, and the Veld, though he permitted us to question all men, and each other, commanded us.

Charpantier and I did not often speak to each other while in the Foundation. We were too near the Veld, and insufficiently full of ourselves. But as we rode down the elevator, with its noise of metal sliding all alone in the world, Charpantier looked at me. And I knew what he looked.

I have thought to myself that Charpantier says of everything: “Why is this thing not perfect?” while I say to myself: “Where is the perfection in this thing?” Surely my thought is as potent as his. But you see his advantage over me, for he was forever safe from what I might look at him, but I, I was not safe.

We reached the chamber of the Veld. We opened the door and displayed our accumulation to his perceptions.

“My-being reflects you,” the Veld told us from his perception, and seeing that he was become beautiful, I knew we had done well. “Now will I make, and take my way, and you in your sorrow stay to see the world restored.”

This was as he had promised the world, and us, before he put an end to questioning. Though only we remembered. But I wondered—I did not question; I wondered—as I imagined his making of the new transporter, taking my imagined thing from what I knew of how he had made us; I wondered whether the world was safe.

I thought of the chamber beside this one, where we had been born. I had often been there, only to look. There is the tank—the Rochester, Minnesota, Biophysical Equipment Co. tank. And there is the Velikaya Socialisticheskaya Rossiya coagulator, and the IBM 704, and the Braun, Boveri heater. There stand the cabinets, with their Torsen, Held Artztmetal refrigeration units. And the cabinets stand full of flasks and ampules, and there is the autoclave full of Becton-Dickinson Yale syringes, and dangling from the wall are the Waldos the Veld used to manipulate all these things.

And of all these Earthly things, the Veld made men not entirely Earthly, for the Veld is a Veld.

Now soon, the new transporter would take the Veld away—in ways I wondered were perilous—and it would be Charpantier and I who stayed to see the world restored.

Charpantier and I, who called ourselves, but had no names.

He commanded us to go and we went, I East, Charpantier West. I saw Charpantier hurry down his side of the hill, handsome and hasty under the stars. I walked—for me, to run is to risk—and I trembled, for me to feel is to know, and the Veld was desperate. He slept at night, secure from questions even though he slept, for his power once exercised was irrevocable so long as he existed. But tonight he did not sleep; he made.

I thought of my assumed man, on his assumed island, red-eyed and tremulous of hand, bent over his pot, stirring, stirring, unable to wait for morning. I thought of the light from his fire, shining on the dumb eyes of his faithful messengers waiting at the edge of his clearing. The messengers are dismissed from service, yet not quite sure they are dismissed. And I thought of this Earth, and the Veld’s old promise to us that tomorrow it would wake knuckling its eyes, and need a loving voice to say there was an end to nightmares.

I would speak and Charpantier would speak, but what would we say? And in what voices, born of the Veld’s touch on the Waldos? And would there be more than speaking to do?

I did not think there was much I could do but speak. Charpantier lacks a finger, but I … I have hands, but I lack them.

Oh, but the stars were cold! The Moon in this season was a day Moon, and now below the horizon. Stars, stars and galaxies, but beyond them, where the Veldish beings lived, nothing I could see, and below the stars, too, here where I reached the brow of the hill and clumsily opened my wings, here, too, nothing, as I lurched into the night and in great strain beat toward the places of men.

I had a favorite place; the place I had chosen to begin to speak from. It was small, as men measure things—a few lights in the darkness, here the sheen of a lake, there the tiered wooliness of trees—a town in which I had disposed those men who must first unbind themselves from the years of no questioning. For unlike the Veld and his transporter—and even the Veld needed a transporter—Charpantier and I could not be everywhere.

It was my thought to reassure these men first, and have them go out and reassure others, as older brothers will soothe the younger in the night. I knew from an old argument that Charpantier planned the same. But, of course, they would not be the same sort of men for Charpantier as for me.

Still, they were all men. Once they had all rubbed the sleep from their eyes they would tell each other what they saw, and in the end and all men would have agreed on the shape of the world, so it would not matter what imperfections Charpantier pointed out, or what implicit glories I perceived.

If the Veld’s hand did not tremble as he stirred his pot.

And yet it had—it had; Charpantier had said more than he thought, when he thought to stop up my mouth with myself.

I faced away from the Foundation, now mile on mile behind me. But my eyes turned inward, and in me my mind hovered over the Veld. I had no actual distant eye—no way of seeing beyond the curve of the world or through the haze of the air; no ear to listen to a sound so far away it cannot urge the molecules of air my pinions grope at. But often it is well enough to think, for any thought seems accurate enough to act on, and in time thoughts grow so practiced that they might well be eyes. And so I saw the Veld, though I did not see him, and I saw him falter.

In me, the Veld suddenly told: “I have made, and I go. Forgive me for your sorrow.” And I forgave him, as I had forgiven him long ago. For his duty was to men, not to ourselves who were part of that duty. And Charpantier, I knew, had nothing to forgive, for he was glad of his sorrow.

The wind numbed my eyes. I wept.

Under the cold stars, my crude cheeks glistened. I hovered over the town, where some men slept and some men worked, because some machines run during the day and some run at night, and I listened for anything else the Veld might have to tell, for he was my irrevocable commander as long as he existed on this Earth. I also listened with the ear of habituated thought.

And I heard. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Veld use the Earthly transporter, but it was not with my mind’s ear alone that I heard what I heard.

The pot erupts. The stranded man claws back in agony so great he cannot even scream, arms, legs and face smoldering, and jounces on the ground, to lie, to moan, to be a long mindless time dying. And at the clearing’s edge the little messengers have no one to say what could be done to soothe him.

What now? Where to go, what to do, how to repair?

Oh, Veld, Veld, long-living Veld, what truly eternal sorrow!

I sank down through the air, bereft and graceless. What could I do for the Veld? All that remained to me was what I could say to men. But I knew as I landed among them that the Veld’s promise could not be kept, since the Veld was still here.

I cried out to the men: “Awake! Arise!” They stumbled out of their houses, but when I said to the first of them: “Question me!” he obediently answered: “How?”

I go back to where the Foundation was, now and then. I bring doctors with me, after each time it seems to me I have found a way to tell them what to seek. The Veld lies where his chamber was, before the stone decayed, and tells me nothing.

If he truly reflects me, as he is now, then I don’t know if I can bear to wait for the day when I can dash myself down from the outraged air and surrender myself to the sea-speckled rocks. The doctors say that if only someone would tell them what questions to ask about the Veld, and if only someone would give them the answers to the questions, they might be able to do something.

Charpantier is there sometimes, and mocks me. “You’re getting crazier every day, Maurer,” he says. “Suppose you restore the Veld? Then what? Does he make another transporter?” He shakes his head. “Poor Maurer. What’re you doing to these people you bring here? What do you want from them? Something the Veld himself couldn’t accomplish?”

I try. I try to tell them how to question, and I command them to question. And I hope the Veld dies. But though Charpantier and I—even Charpantier and I—are growing a little older, the Veld is only moribund, and no more dead than he was before the days when thirty generations of men battled to keep the southernmost edge of the creeping ice from burying the Veld beyond the reach of hope.

For I hope—though I can see a sprig of silver, here and there, in Charpantier’s darkness now. The Veld must be accessible to my hope, though I must command millions of men.

And I think Charpantier hopes, too, because so long as he can see me failing he knows I am imperfect, but he wishes perfection for me. I know he brings no doctors only because he has not yet found a way for a man to respond to the command, “Be perfect!”

Each time the hope dies, I tell my men: “Go home, now. Rest.” And they go home. But I? I blunder about, thinking that perhaps if I could kill the Veld, that would be an end to it. But nothing can kill the Veld, unless it be something the Veld knows of. So first we must heal the Veld. And healed he will once again seek his heart’s desire, hopelessly. As do I. As do I.

 

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