by David M. Korn

"What men want is not knowledge, but certainty."
Bertrand Russell

"The Kingdom of Men"

"The Man With the Stone"

"The Cleft in the Land"

The Kingdom of Men

In a faraway land, but not long ago, there was a small and humble civilization. No one was wealthy, but everyone was honest and worked hard. The men farmed and raised animals, and the women tended the home and raised the children. Time moved very slowly. Little changed generation after generation. But all seemed as it should be, and the people expected a long and happy future.

Then, one day, an old man appeared among the people declaring that he had had a vision. “I’ve a great prophecy to reveal. We will never prosper if we do not have many strong hands to work the land. There must be more sons born to each family.”

This seemed reasonable and the people were glad to obey. Families had more children to provide more sons for the good of everyone throughout the land. The sons grew into strong young boys, who worked the land, tended the animals, and even developed new trades to make the work easier and more efficient. There was more food and prosperity. But because there were also more girls, there were still many mouths to feed and very few families seemed much better off than before. Indeed, the population grew with each generation, providing the need for more sons to produce more food, resulting in even more children.

Then the Prophet had another vision. “Now that we are great and prosperous, there are those from other lands who would take away what we have built and destroy us. So we must have more sons to protect us, for there will surely be war.”

Once again, the people agreed.

They produced more sons, and of course, more daughters as well. As time passed, these children grew up and married, and were encouraged to have as many sons as they could. Since this generation was accustomed to the increasing need for boys, they were apt to be disappointed whenever a girl was born. Before long, those families who had more boys were prouder and more prominent than those who had more girls. A father was praised for his many fine sons, and thought well of by his peers and elders. But a father of more than one girl was thought to be weak and unhealthy. And a father of girls and no boys at all was laughed at in public, denounced in private, and eventually shunned as an oddity.

Then, just as the Prophet had decreed, there was a sudden invasion of outsiders, who sought to kill all who opposed them and plunder their goods. But the people were well prepared. They had created and trained an army for just such an occurrence, and quickly and mercilessly vanquished the intruders. The affair was violent and bloody, and many strong and brave sons were lost. But the people’s way of life was protected and its future preserved. Now there were suddenly more girls and women than young men in their prime, for the only male survivors of the war were very young boys and old men.

The Prophet, who was much older now, came forth and declared that the people must restore the strength and produce more sons than ever. “Indeed,” he announced, “we cannot afford to have any more girls, or we shall be a weak and vulnerable state!”

Everyone agreed, and their enthusiasm for new sons became boundless. Whenever a young man married, he was greeted and sent forth from the ceremony with the creed, “May you have a thousand sons!”

Although none spoke of it, each family secretly vowed to have no girls at all. And it seemed, as if by the force of will alone, that no more girls were born. Every newborn baby that came home was in fact a boy. Young couples were visited by friends and parents to see and praise all the new baby boys. Money and gifts were lavished upon them and leaders thanked them for their virtuous contribution to the future of the state. Strangers stopped young mothers in the street to congratulate them for their fine, healthy sons. Mothers were now as proud as fathers for the accomplishment of giving the world nothing but sons.

And the last generation of young girls grew up, got married, had sons, and grew old. No one remarked on the fact that there were now no more baby girls to replace them. No one admitted, or even questioned, what everyone secretly knew, and had known for a very long time. That whenever a baby girl had been born, she was taken away and killed without a word. All along, everyone had thought that everyone else would be having girls, at least some girls somewhere, until it was too late and the practice of eliminating them was too widespread to halt the eventual extinction of women. When the last women died, no one protested, and life among the people, now all men, went on as always. Everyone pretended that nothing had changed. Since there were no babies to be taken care of anyway, the women did not even seem to be missed.

Again, the Prophet, now a very old man, made a grand announcement. Speaking for everyone, and turning faint concerns into the proudest of boasts, he declared, “Now that we are a kingdom of men, we are stronger and greater than ever!” There were cheers and applause, and everyone was intoxicated with a new pride and optimism. Surely, their future would bring only more happiness and prosperity.

Time passed and the remaining boys became men, the men became older men, and the old men became weak and died. When there were no more new sons and then no more young men, the elders remarked on the fact that it had indeed been a long time since a new baby had been born. Everyone agreed that this was a worrisome turn of events, for it was inescapably apparent that if no new boys were born, then the future of the people as a whole was seriously in question. Indeed, the population had been getting smaller and smaller for some time, and in a few short years there were would be no one left but the oldest of the old, and not long after that, no one at all.

The Prophet had long since died himself, so he was no longer able to offer advice. But there was only one solution, and it was voiced and agreed upon by the elders with little hesitation.

“We are a great people and we must simply have more young sons to ensure our future.” As always, there were solemn nods, great applause and enthusiastic support for this singular notion, and everyone vowed to do their part in producing more baby boys.

More time passed, but try as they night, and oh, how they did try. They tried and they tried and they tried, and even tried a few more times just to make sure. But this kingdom of men could not produce even one new baby boy. It was hard to accept, but everyone had to confront the fact that it was simply impossible for a nation of men to thrive without at least one woman.

And so, the few remaining old men staggered feebly out of the village in search of wives to provide them with some strong new sons. But when they came to the next town, they found that no young girls or women would welcome them as potential mates. They were too old to provide for them and too weak to protect them, and of course, the women wanted only strong young men in their prime to become fathers for all the fine, healthy sons they planned to have.

But the old men would not be so easily denied. They decided to take one of the young girls by force and spirit her off to the village under the cover of night. The old men were so old and feeble, however, that their invasion was undone by clumsiness and incompetence. No longer fit and sure, they made noise when they broke into the nearest household and stumbled over the furniture. Speaking at the top of their lungs in the cranky, ear-splitting voices of old men, though they thought they were whispering in complete secrecy, they were exposed as they searched in hopeless darkness for their intended victim. To their surprise, they were quickly exposed and set upon by the young girl’s brothers. Too slow to escape and too weak to defend themselves, they were all dispatched with bloody efficiency and fed to the hogs, putting an abrupt end to their glorious civilization, this kingdom of men.


The Man with the Stone

In a land far to the east, a traveler passed a peculiar man in the crowded public streets. He seemed to have a large stone strapped to his back. The traveler thought about it and soon reasoned that the man must be a stone cutter or some other kind of laborer who was on his way to work.

Later that day, the traveler spotted the man again, still with a stone strapped to his back. For a moment he thought that the man was transporting another stone. But he watched him for a while and was intrigued to discover that the man went about his business as if he had no burden at all. Indeed, as the man strained to support the stone in his movements, he nevertheless behaved as if it were part of his clothing, or even his very person, and he seemed committed to carrying it wherever he went.

The traveler could no longer contain his curiosity, and followed the man until he could catch up with him. “Excuse me, sir,” he called as the crowd of people thinned out. “Excuse me.”

Realizing that they were nearly alone on the street and he was being addressed, the man stopped and turned around. “Yes?”

“Forgive my curiosity, but I’m not from around here. I’ve noticed that you go around with that stone strapped to your back. Is it some form of punishment?”

The man smiled. “Oh no, I carry it to keep from floating away.”

“Floating away?” The traveler was astonished and regarded him askance.

“Yes, as long as I have it, I know that my feet will always stay on the ground.”

The traveler was confused. “But if the stone keeps you from floating away, what keeps the stone from floating away?”

“Well, I do, of course.” To this the traveler said nothing. “Good day to you,” the man said pleasantly. Then he turned and hitched up his shoulders to regain firm control of his burden, and went on his way.


A Cleft in the Land

Once, in an ancient land, there were two peoples, those of the highlands and those of the lowlands. They looked the same and dressed the same and were equal in number. They mixed together every day in places of work and rest. But for as long as anyone could remember, they hated each other and lived in a state of violent conflict. No one knew how it had started, or even when, but each side vowed the destruction of the other, for each refused to forget the past and accept its existence. Each year, women and children were killed in uprisings in the villages they shared. Each year, young men sacrificed themselves in violent ambushes. The smallest misunderstanding in the street could erupt into irreparable bloodshed. This land, which was still rich with fruit trees and olive groves under its warm bright sun, was as wounded and scarred as an old man whose youth was far behind him.

Then, one day brought hope.

The wife of the young king of the highlands had a son. The king loved his new son dearly and he became the center of his universe. All his thoughts and attentions ran to the young boy. The feeling made him regard his people more warmly than ever. It also made him feel less animosity for the people of the lowlands, making him regret the terrible legacy of violence between them. Indeed, how can we be possessed of so much love and so much hate at the same time? he thought one day in his garden. He picked up his son and held him high in the bright morning sunshine, and vowed that he would create a lasting peace between the two sides once and for all.

The king was thus determined to bring peace to the land for the first time in centuries. He met with his many loyal officers, and informed them that he planned to announce a new era of goodwill.

“Gentlemen, this state of affairs between our people and those of the lowlands cannot stand. I shall not let my son grow up in such a world.”

The men of the court had never heard of such a thing. There was murmuring and guarded looks among them. Fearing the king, no one could address him directly. They could only avoid his eyes with discomfort. Everyone wanted to speak up, but no one wanted to openly defy the king before his entire court.

The king sensed the reluctance to speak their minds, and was determined to avoid all protocol. “Pray, tell me your thoughts. Please speak freely, all of you.”

“What you suggest is impossible even to contemplate, sire,” an old man said finally. “Many years ago it was suggested, but not achieved.”

“Yes,” cried another. “There is simply no hope of a true peace. For our people do not believe that there has ever been peace. ‘What has never existed shall never exist,’ as the old saying goes.”

“Ah,” the king countered, a finger in the air. “But I have already thought of this. We shall convince them that their continued hate will result in the violent destruction of the entire kingdom. We shall frighten them into freeing their hearts and minds of this poison forever.”

“How, if bloody conflict itself has never frightened them thus?”

“I have a plan in this very regard, which I shall announce tomorrow.” When everyone heard the plan, the entire court was stunned. No one could speak. There was neither agreement nor disagreement, for what the king proposed was unthinkable. But no one protested. The king was to make his announcement to his people the very next day.

“People of the highlands,” the king cried from the balcony of his palace. “The voice of the creator of all things spoke to me in a dream last night. He is very angry with the people of this great land, both high and low. He has endured centuries of ceaseless violence. He has waited and waited for a peaceful understanding between us, and we have failed him over and over. He will have no more of this. He wants peace immediately. He has given us all an ultimatum. Starting this very day, there will exist the smallest crack in the land between our two kingdoms, a tiny cleft in the ground. Each day there is no peace, the cleft shall grow, little by little. The cleft will grow by virtue of the degree of hate inside us. It shall grow quicker and larger if we fight and kill. But it will grow too by the smallest increments if there is the slightest venom in our hearts. We shall not escape from ourselves, and if we appear to be peaceful, but are just as mistrusting and vengeful behind closed doors, it will do no good. The cleft will still increase, until the entire kingdom is swallowed by the earth itself. So which is it to be? Shall we love each other or shall we commit ourselves to the great abyss?”

The sea of people was silent. The king’s warning had achieved the desired effect. Suddenly, the prospect of falling into the maw of the earth was much greater than their petty squabble with the people of the lowlands.

But after a few moments, there was a murmuring in the crowd. The murmur spread, turning into a rumble, until one man finally spoke up. “It’s the fault of those wretched lowlanders!” he spat viciously.

“Yes, theirs! It’s they who should perish in the abyss!” And there was a chorus of further agreement, as if they all could wish the punishment true by the power of their condemnation.

The young king was astounded. He feared that he had only added to the intensity of the conflict. The hate of his people was still greater than their fear of destruction. He turned his back on them and left the balcony.

“What shall we do now, sire?” one of the officers asked.

“There is only one thing that will suffice.”

The very next day, a shepherd was out tending his flock, when he came to a small crevice in the ground. He did not give it another thought, until he came to it the following day. He noticed that it was five times as big. Fearful of telling anyone the terrible news, he kept it to himself. He avoided it for two days, but at the end of the week, he could stay away no longer. When he went to examine the crevice, it was at least twice as big as it had been that first day. He could keep the terrible discovery to himself no longer. Before the end of the day, everyone in the highlands knew about the crevice and huddled along it to take a look. The crowds stood along the long gash, staring down into the ground with a mixture of curiosity and dread.

By now the lowlanders had heard about both the king’s warning and the crevice in the pasture. They too gathered on the other side of the cleft to witness this terrible instrument of mortal demise.

“This is all your fault!” one of the lowlanders cried.

“Yes,” shouted another. “If you would have just let us be we’d all be safe!”

The highlanders gathered on their side of the crevice were enraged by the accusation. “Us?! It’s you who started all this?! You’re to blame!”

“If we’d just gotten rid of all of you, we’d be fine!”

“No, if we’d gotten rid of you!”

And on and on went the threats and intimidations, with each side more convinced than ever of its righteousness. Now there was greater conflict than before. Fights broke out all along the edges of the crevice, and each killing brought more intense fighting and more vicious killing.

The young king of the highlands was more hopeless than ever. His plan had only accelerated the conflict, and it made everyone on the both sides determined to exterminate the other. Once again, his officers gathered to confront the matter.

“We shall have to tell everyone the truth now, sire,” the oldest man said. “It is a small group of soldiers who goes out every morning before the sun comes up to expand the crevice.”

“Yes, before it’s too late. The bigger it gets the worse the effect. Even if we could keep it up, we’re splitting open our own land and I’ve no doubt that the fighting will not stop until the people of both sides are indeed swallowed up by the abyss.”

“Maybe, sire,” a young officer proposed, “everyone will be so overjoyed by the announcement that the cleft is merely of our own making that they will be only too happy to make peace.”

But the king didn’t agree immediately, and thought about this long and hard. “No,” he said emphatically, “we shall not reveal a thing, and let desperation itself take its course.”

And so the king and his officers said nothing, but secretly recalled their soldiers. The very next morning, crowds of people from both lands gathered as they had in recent days. They looked down at the cleft in the earth and saw that it had again grown in length. Each side angrily accused the other of endangering the lives of everyone else. “If you would all just end this irrational hate of us, this cleft would stop growing and we’d all be safe!” one side spat at the other.

“No, it is you who should stop, or we shall all perish!”

Despite the king’s secret calling off of the great plan, the cleft grew by itself. Day after day brought an increase in its length and breath. Soon it spanned over a mile, and had the width of a canyon, creating a chasm between the two lands that was as dark and unbreechable as the blackness in their hearts. The king grew fearful, and wondered what was happening.

“I don’t understand it,” he announced to his loyal court. “The crevice has continued to grow, although we have let it be.”

“We must attempt to stem this terrible course of events,” one of the officers said fearfully. “Perhaps we can fill it in before it expands.”

There was enthusiastic agreement, and it was decided that the same troop of soldiers who had begun the cleft would now be employed each morning to fill it in with as much dirt and stone as needed to restore the land to its original state. “Surely,” the young king thought aloud, “that we can shore it up much faster than it can increase itself.”

And so the king’s army and engineers were dispatched to collect as much dirt and stone as they could from the fields and hills of the highlands. They gathered at the edge of the crevice every evening and dumped it in, to the hopeful cheers of all who gathered to watch. The cleft grew and the men raced to pour enough dirt and stone into it to compensate. But it was readily apparent that this was a futile endeavor, for they could not keep up with the cleft’s pace. No matter how much earth and stone was shoveled into the crevice, it continued to grow unabated, slashing through the middle of the two kingdoms as if determined to reach both horizons.

To add further distress, the highland landscape was being methodically destroyed. As far as one looked in any direction, there were holes and ditches left by all the hasty excavation. The once lush and serene topography was now hopelessly pock marked, and still the land continued to cave in on itself with each passing day. It seemed that nothing could be done to stop it.

By now, the old king of the lowlands was forced to act. He ordered his own army to join the fray, and it too proceeded to carve up the hills and fields of the lowlands, dumping load after load of dirt and stone into the increasing abyss. Despite a few days of pretended optimism, in which people on both sides of the cleft were determined to convince themselves that the effort to refill the crevice was now sufficient, the abyss continued its inevitable pace.

The people of the both lands were now convinced of their terrible fate, for the crevice had increased in length, depth and width to such a degree that everyone knew there was no longer enough dirt and stone to ever fill it even if it did stop growing. So the effort was abandoned completely, and the people on both sides gathered each day to mark its growth, as if this simple routine somehow provided a consolatory satisfaction. At first there were murmurings and quiet conversation. But with each passing day there was less and less to say, until both sides were completely silent. All accusations seemed pointless, and all regrets inadequate. No one even looked up to meet the eyes of anyone else, neighbor or adversary. Everyone just stared down into the great abyss, which now stretched from horizon to horizon in length, and in width, to the very edges of the nearest villages.

Each side expected the next day to be the last... and the next... and the next...

No one dared say it, and few had the courage to even think it, but it appeared that the cleft had indeed stopped growing. It had no farther to go before it started to capture homes and shops and streets, and yet nothing fell into the bottomless maw. Everything remained intact, day after day, week after week, as the silent, defeated crowds stood at the edge of their own eternity and waited to be mercilessly swallowed up with the next sunrise.

The poisonous hate between the two peoples had finally diminished under their abject fear and acceptance of destruction. They were emotionless. No one could even furnish the energy to be sad. And everyone knew that they deserved their fate, for no one could protest the condemnation of the creator himself. Both kings sat silently and uselessly on their thrones, afraid to summon or call for even a shred of hope. For with that, they knew full well, came a renewed sense of life, identity and purpose. Then the arrogance of the righteous, and the glorious hate of those on the other side, followed by the same determination to destroy them that had always burned deeply in everyone, instantly enlarging the chasm and plunging the entire region into the terrible cleft at its center.

It was only a matter of time.

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