Friday, September 23, 2005

Taeko’s Lesson

Category: Issue 1, Short Story Winners

Many years ago in a small village in central Asia, a man named Taeko walked toward the baker’s shop and overheard another fellow named Maika say “See, he gets bread, wine, whatever he wants whenever he wants.”  He’d been hearing more and more of these comments lately.

Taeko had discovered how to find and destroy the wounds on animals that often led to their death.  He used a gentle touch in his search and fire in his cure.  The villagers paid him well for his services and the number of bite chips he had hidden in his hut was rumored to be over 1000.

The villagers used bite chips as money.  If a villager had no bite chips, he could simply make one by clamping his jaw down on a flat round piece of soft wood one or more times.  The pattern he made with his teeth determined the value of the chip.  The villagers had long since learned to recognize each other’s tooh-signatures.

A chip with your bite on it indicated that you were in debt.  While a slight stigma existed for those with many bite chips in circulation, such debtors were recognized as available for work and often called upon to take care of bothersome tasks.  Whenever one of them earned back his own bite chips, he was encouraged to bring it to the fire at the weekend ceremony and toss it in.

These debtors had difficulty getting wine and sweetbreads because the winemaker and the baker would not accept their bite chips and few employers offered them the bite chips of other villagers.  Taeko had been in this position until he figured out how to save animals’ lives with his gentle touch and curative fire.  He had collected many bite chips from other villagers since then and hidden them around his hut.

Taeko worried about the increasing resentment others felt toward him for his wealth.  He had a cup of wine and some pastry at the baker’s and headed toward the center of the village where the ceremony would be held.

At the end of the ceremony, as he had feared, someone brought up the issue of hoarding chips.  He was not mentioned by name, but many of the villagers could not help but shoot him a sideways glance every now and then.  The elders asked those who had no bite chips in circulation to stay after the ceremony.

Elder Maruk introduced an idea to the smaller group:  “Those who are very capable need never bite themselves a chip for they have many already.  They should be teaching their capabilities to others.”

“I’ve tried to teach others, but they are too rough and scare the animals,” said Taeko defensively.  He knew he was overreacting, but this trouble had eaten at his soul for many weeks.

“Have you found no one with a gentle enough touch?” asked Elder Tandra.

“Bannuka and Annika are probably gentle enough, but they refuse to be near sick animals.  I suspect some of the children could do it, but they are not allowed near sick animals or to handle fire.  Perhaps if we allowed them to try, under my supervision, they may prove to be good at it.”

“It is too dangerous.” counselled Tandra.

Maruk then made a proposal.  “I propose that if an activity cannot be performed by more than one person, then it may not be performed at all.  You will have to pass on your skills if you wish to continue benefitting from them.”

“What if no one is willing to learn?” asked Taeko.  He could think of no other task that only one person could do.  It was clear but remained unacknowledged that he was the only one to whom this law would apply.

“Then the task is not valuable enough to perform,” answered Maruk.

The elders all nodded at each other and the meeting began to break up.

Over the next few days, Taeko sat with 12 older children, asking them about their pets and letting them hold his cat.  He selected two and discussed with their parents whether he could begin teaching them his skill so that when they came of age, they could join him in healing animals.  One child was allowed, but the other’s parents had lost a child to bad milk from a sick goat and so did not want anything to do with sick animals.

Although Anand was very gentle with animals, he was distracted and quickly lost interest in the subject.  Taeko burned through much of his savings while trying to teach him, but ultimately gave up and went back to grooming animals with Annika and Bannuka.

Wounded animals from then on were not healed with fire, but killed and buried.  Taeko spent most of his money on wine and became less and less effective at grooming until no one wanted his services.  When he killed himself, he had 71 bite chips in circulation.

The ceremony at the end of the week celebrates those who have regained their bite chips.  When a villager has died, those with his bite chips make a ring around the fire and toss them in, one by one, forgiving his debt.  It was traditional for the first chip to be thrown by the closest friend of the deceased.  In Taeko’s case, no one was willing to be first.  Finally, Maika spoke up.  “I was not close to Taeko, but I fear we have made a mistake in stopping his work.  I will keep what chips of his I have as a reminder for myself.”  After a few moments of thought, everyone wandered away in silent agreement.

Taeko’s chips are still in circulation today.  They represent the highest unit of currency in the village.