Dedicated to Julie Thomas and John Quiggin
Once upon a time there was a land of skinny people. There were tall skinny people and there were short skinny people and in between there were skinny people who were not short but also they were not tall. The men were skinny and the girls were skinny and though there were never so many children at one time all of those were skinny too.
There were also some dogs and some cats in the land of skinny people. The dogs and cats were really very skinny. They were even skinnier than the skinny people.
Now the reason that all of the people and the dogs and the cats were all skinny was because the land of skinny people and skinny dogs and cats did not have a lot of food. It was not that the land was bad, no, the land was not so bad at all. It was not because there was no rain, no, there was enough rain. It was not because there was not enough fertiliser, no, there was enough fertiliser. The reason that all of the people and all of the cats and the dogs were skinny was because the land of skinny people had lots and lots of skinny people and lots of skinny dogs and skinny cats.
Now you might think that being as everyone was so skinny and all the dogs and all the cats were so skinny that they would all be quite unhappy but this was not the case. In fact, surprising as it might sound to you or to me, the people in the land of skinny people were all quite content. I guess it must have been because, as little as there was, there was enough. There was never enough to waste. Sometimes some people might even go to bed without having supper but all in all they got to have enough to eat so they could do the things they had to do which was mostly growing things to eat, talking about things to eat, talking about how to cook things they did have to eat and talking about how they might get together and share what they had so that none of them would go to bed without their supper.
It’s an interesting thing about humans that when women get to be too skinny they stop having babies. That is why, as many people as there were in the land of skinny people, there were not so many children because you see it was only when there was a little bit more, just enough, so that a woman might get just that little bit less skinny, that she might be able to have a baby. It was a good thing too because the land of skinny people really did not need too many more skinny people and it certainly did not need too many more skinny dogs or skinny cats who only survived because they were quick enough and wily enough to not get caught by skinny people who might be particularly hungry.
The skinny people of the land of skinny people were very careful with the food that they grew and the fish that they caught and the eggs that they collected from the chickens that were particularly skinny for the simple reason that they were forever having to outrun the skinny dogs and the skinny cats and the skinny people who would like to eat them. The skinny people were so very careful with food that their whole language was filled with words that were all like different shades of the only word we have that is similar: thrift. They had a ‘thrift’ word for being thrifty with rice and one for being thrifty with leafy vegetables and even one for being thrifty with leftover cabbage.
You might say the skinny people of the land of skinny people were thrifty. That would be accurate. It would be accurate like saying that the ocean is wet. It would be accurate like saying that skinny people who waste food would be considered insane. In fact the word for ‘insane’ in the land of the skinny people was like our word ‘spendthrift’. To say that a skinny person from the land of skinny people who wasted food was a spendthrift would be like saying that the ocean is wet. You get the picture.
One of the skinniest people in all of the land of the skinny people was a tall skinny man call Slim. He wasn’t the skinniest person in the land of skinny people. In fact, the skinniest person in the whole of the land of the skinny people was his brother Stick.
Slim and Stick did not have any land of their own to grow rice on or to steal eggs from skinny chickens. They had left the narrow farm that belonged to their skinny mom and skinny dad so that their mom and dad could take care of their very skinny sister
It was rather noble of them it is true but it might also have had a lot to do
with the fact that because there was so many of them for such a small piece of
land there was really not enough food for them all and Slim was so often hungry
that one day he stood up from the kitchen table that was as bare as his
father’s head and said: Willow
“Right, I’m off. You comin’ Stick?”
Of course, the people in the land of skinny people did not speak English so you will have to make do with the poor translations that I am forced to make if I am to relate this story to you.
With not more than a tummy-rumbling grunt of agreement Stick too rose from the kitchen table and followed Slim out the door and out into land of the skinny people.
They wandered all of the land of skinny people. If you can believe it they became even skinnier than they had been before. They tried running a little show: “the skinniest person in the whole land of skinny people” but there were not so many people who were happy to give food to someone just to look at another skinny person no matter how skinny he might be. They tried working all sorts of jobs but the fact is there is not a lot that you can do for people who already do everything they can to get enough to eat. Though they never starved (skinny people would never allow that) they were always very hungry. One day Slim stood up from the side of the rather narrow dusty road that they had been sitting beside and said:
“Right, I’m going home. You comin’ Stick?”
And with that they turned their rather skinny noses in the direction that they thought was home. But it wasn’t.
They walked for quite some time until it started to rain. It was not your normal land of the skinny people rain which was usually rather thin. It was a particularly heavy rain and the drops were so big and there were so many of them that they felt to Slim and Stick like rocks.
Slim and Stick ran to get out of the rain and in running they ran right off the road and right into a forest of tall slender trees that were so thread bare that they provided no shelter. They ran through the forest crying “ouch” and “ow” and all sorts of other words that are the same in English as they are in the language of the people of the land of skinny people. They ran blind and they ran so hard that they burst through an unusually thick hedge and found themselves suddenly in the dark. It wasn’t raining rocks. It wasn’t even raining the usual thin rain of the land of the skinny people. In fact, it was not raining at all. It was dark and it was dry and there was something else – something different. Something so different that very soon their heads were spinning with the something that was very different to anything they had ever experienced in all the land of the skinny people.
It was the smell of food.
It was not just the smell of food like the smell of a bowl of nice hot rice that has just been set upon the table. It was not even the smell of food like a bowl of nice hot rice AND a nice fresh boiled egg that has just been set upon the table. It was the smell of all the food they had ever eaten in all their lives multiplied over and over so many times that…
They ran blindly into the cave for that’s where they were. They were in a cave that no skinny person from the land of skinny people had ever seen before. In fact there was not even one skinny person in all the land of the skinny people who could even dream of a cave like the cave that Slim and Stick had just discovered.
They ran and they ran until the wonderful smell was all around them and then they fell to their knees and reached out in the dark with their skinny little hands until they found something. It was soft but not too soft. They each pulled at what they had felt until they each had in their hands something that smelled so good that the best dinner you ever had in all your life would smell like old dishwater beside it. And then they ate.
To say that they ate really does not describe what they did. Eating is what well fed people like you and I do when we sit down to dinner of roast chicken and beautifully roasted potatoes with thick gravy and lots of freshly picked steamed peas with mint and butter and those lovely little crusty loaves of bread. They ate like only the skinniest people in all the land of the skinny people could eat when they were starving and when they had found what Slim and Stick had just found – a cave that opened up into a cavern so huge and so long and so wide and with so many more side caverns that really it might have well gone on forever – and on every inch of the floor and on every wall in all of the vastness of the caverns there grew a mushroom that was like no other mushroom in all of the world for it was the mushroom of the gods and it had been set in the cavern to grow by the gods of long long ago so that they might snack whenever the urge took them. But being gods they just seem to have plumb forgot that the mushrooms were still here. I guess it must have been the bushes at the mouth of the cave. I suppose gods can loose things too.
Well, after they had eaten what you can well imagine was the very best meal of their whole lives, Slim and Stick were feeling rather good. It’s a particularly curious attribute of these mushrooms that even if you stuffed yourself with them you would not feel at all drowsy. In fact Slim and Stick were feeling better than they had ever felt in their whole life. Slim stood up and spoke into the dark:
“I’m off to swap some mushrooms for some lamps and oil. Comin’ Stick?”
With that they removed their threadbare shirts and fashioned them into bags which they filled with mushrooms and then they headed off to the nearest village.
They found a little tinker’s shop that was run by a skinny man and his skinny wife. Slim reached into his bag and tore off just a little morsel of mushroom and held it out to the skinny tinker and said:
“Here, try this.”
As the tinker reached out to take the morsel of mushroom the aroma reached his nose and his eyes popped open like two saucers and his nostrils flared and the saliva started to drip from the corner of his mouth. He snatched the piece from Slim's hand and it instantly disappeared into his mouth. A huge smile lightened up his skinny little face and for a moment it actually almost didn’t look skinny at all because it was the face of the happiest tinker in all of the land of the skinny people.
As you might imagine, it was not so hard for Slim to negotiate a very favourable deal to both parties. Slim and Stick wandered off with a nice new leather bag filled with lamps and fish oil and firestones. The last they saw of the tinker and his wife they were fighting each other over two large mushrooms.
Slim sat in his beach chair overlooking the ocean sipping his frozen coconut and mushroom margarita. Life was very good. One of the beautiful young girls playing on the beach turned to him and called but he just smiled and waved and thought about how lovely and plump she was. He looked around with a deep feeling of satisfaction. There was not a single skinny person in sight. Every person he could see including the many children were nice and plump.
Twenty years had passed since Slim and Stick had discovered the wonderful caverns that had changed the lives of every person in the land of skinny people. Now it was a land of happy smiling plump people. Everyone had enough to eat. The caverns were so productive and the mushrooms regrew so quickly that the land of skinny people had changed its name to “the land of plump people”. Even the language was changing. The young people who had never lived a life of austerity had stopped using words for “thrift”. The idea that one should save and be careful with food made no sense to them at all. Many of the older people would shake their heads and warn that no good would come of all this waste but as there seemed to be no limit to how much food could be had from the caverns the young people just laughed at the old people and told them that the world had changed and that “things are different now”.
The population of the land of plump people had grown rapidly. There were so many carefree young children that a visitor to the land would never have thought that the long history of the land of plump people had mostly been of thrift and skinny people.
Slim and Stick had become famous of course. At first they had tried to manage all of those mushrooms by themselves but it had not been long before the job became just way too big and so they had given up their control of the mushrooms to a newly formed government of extra plump people who were happy to take over the job. The government then awarded them special status in the land so that no matter where they might go they would be greeted with the dignity and respect that was due to the two marvellously clever men who had changed the land of skinny people into the land of plump people.
Yes the land of skinny people, sorry, the land of plump people, had changed. Things were different. Everything that they had believed about life, the world and food just did not apply anymore. The very nature of the people had changed and was changing even more every day. With all the wealth that came from the wonderful mushrooms the land was sprouting with schools and institutions and buildings that were larger and more grand than anyone in the land had ever known.
There were some things that were not so nice about what was happening though. When everyone had been skinny, though there had never been more than just enough, the people of the land that had been the land of skinny people but was now the land of plump people would be careful not just with food but with each other. But with there being no longer any need for thrift there seemed now also to be no need to care for anyone. Everyone could care for himself or herself and if there was anything they needed, well, then they could go to the government and they would be provided for. The old people shook their heads at that too but of course any words they uttered were laughed into the mushroom smelling wind by the young people of the land of skinny people that was now called the land of plump people.
Slim looked up the beach and noticed a small group of rather plump men walking in his direction. He could see that Stick was with them. That meant they must be government men because Stick (who had acquired the nickname “trunk”) liked to spend his time with government men and give advice on the care and harvesting of mushrooms. He was quite an expert in the field (or should I say cavern) though, as even he would concede, there was nobody in all the land of plump people that used to be called the land of skinny people that knew as much about mushrooms as Slim.
As the men approached something began to niggle at a small corner of the mind of Slim. As they got closer and closer the niggle became a waggle that went form niggling that small corner of his mind to a waggle that was waggling bigger pieces of his mind until his whole mind was being shaken by something that he not seen for a long time. The look on the faces of the government men and the look on the face of Stick was the same look and it was not a look that filled Slim with happy feelings. It was a look that filled him with fear because the look WAS the look of fear and as everyone knows fear is a very contagious affliction.
Stick led the rather plump government men to stand before Slim and block his view of the ocean.
“There’s a problem at the caverns Slim. You comin’?”
They made the journey to the caverns in one of the new marvels of the land that had been known as the land of skinny people but was now known as the land of plump people. It was like a carriage but instead of a skinny horse or a skinny ox to haul the carriage it had a magical device that consumed mushroom juice to turn the wheels. Not only did it make travelling long distances as easy as sitting by the beach sipping coconut and mushroom margaritas but the exhaust it produced was sweet and wholesome.
After a few hours of travelling that were only slightly hampered by the many carriages that were zipping back and forth along the road they came to the great commercial and industrial complex that now surrounded the caverns. Slim was very impressed with what he saw. There were mighty buildings everywhere and the sound of industry and people working filled the gaps in the air that would otherwise have been filled with the aroma of mushrooms.
Stick and the government men had spent some time during the journey to provide Slim with the most recent production figures. They were very impressive. They were now harvesting so many mushrooms that there was enough to export to neighbouring countries. This provided the land that had been known as the land of skinny people but was now known as the land of plump people with what had been come to be known as a “trade surplus” and a “current account surplus” meaning that people in the neighbouring countries wanted mushrooms more than they wanted the things that they produced in their own countries. Things were very good indeed.
Their carriage was greeted at the inner gate to the caverns by a large troop of soldiers wearing their finest dress uniforms and carrying the latest in defence technology that had been bought from one of the neighbouring countries. As Slim stepped out of the carriage they came to attention with a shout and the stamp of feet and raised their weapons in salute to Slim and to Stick and to the government men.
Stick led them all through the gate with barely a glance at the soldiers. He headed off towards the entry to the caverns at a brisk pace and, though Slim had no trouble keeping up, the rather plump government men were soon huffing and puffing and lagging behind. Along the way Slim could see a steady stream of people and carriages going back and forth from the caverns with loads of mushrooms or tools or building materials. It was a very busy place indeed.
At the mouth of the cavern there was a huge iron gate with razor wire and another troop of soldiers dressed in their finest uniforms. They all stamped their feet and shouted and raised their weapons in salute as Stick hurried past them with Slim close behind and the rather plump government men now straggling behind.
Stick kept going. Through the first cavern he and Slim had found twenty years ago that was now festooned with lights and platforms and machinery for cutting and hauling mushrooms. Through the next cavern that was much the same. Through another and then another and on and on into the depths of the mountain until he suddenly stopped.
Slim caught up and stood beside Stick. Stick turned to Slim and then turned back towards the cavern and then back towards Slim. Slim turned towards the cavern and looked. Two things became apparent to Slim at the same time - the smell and the colour. The smell, he now realised, had been growing as they had approached this cavern but here it was very strong. It was not a nice smell. It was not a nice smell like a dog that was dead and had been lying on the road in the sun for some time was not a nice smell. It was not a nice smell like the smell of a lot of people who liked beans a lot was not a nice smell. It was not a nice smell at all. The smell however was not what now took all of Slim’s attention. What took all of Slim’s attention was the sight in front of him. Where all of the previous caverns were filled with the sight of the golden mushrooms covering the floor and the walls, here the sight was of black things that Slim only knew had been mushrooms because he knew that they could not be anything else. They looked like little piles of what would look very much like what comes out of the back end of a black cow if what came out the back end of a black cow was the same colour as the cow. The walls dripped with black goo and all of the floor was covered with little puddles of black goo and from all of the black goo there came the horrible smell.
The rather plump government men came up behind and gathered while Slim walked around amidst the smell and the blackness dipping his finger into this pile of goo or that pile of goo and raising it to his nose as if expecting that he might find one pile of smelly black goo that was not as offensive as all the piles of smelly black goo appeared to be.
All of the rather plump government men started to speak at the same time but Stick raised his hand and told Slim of the discovery.
“It was fine just last week when they opened up this new cavern for production but when the first team came to harvest they discovered that some of the mushrooms had turned into smelly black goo. They called me and by the time I got here the whole cavern was like this. We have a team of brick layers ready to seal it up but I thought that you should come and have a look first.”
Slim stood looking at the terrible sight of beautiful golden mushrooms turned into smelly black goo and wondered what could be the reason for it. Then he started to think about what it might mean if this happened to other caverns. Then he started to feel that feeling you feel when you think you are going to die and you think that all of your children are going to die and that all of your family and friends are going to die. Fear. It rose within him and was so overpowering that it made him want to run and hide from the sight of beautiful golden mushrooms turned into smelly black goo.
“Seal it. NOW!”
He turned and led them out of the cavern and looked around for the brick layers. He spotted them sitting in a corner smoking dried mushroom skins and he rushed to them waving his arms and screaming “get to work! Get to work! Seal that cavern! Go. NOW!”
The men sprang to their feet and ran past him cowering from his fear and his rage. They rushed to the task and in a blink they had laid the course-work and started on the first line of bricks.
Stick and the rather plump government men stood nearby while Slim stood over the brick layers egging them on with “faster, faster. FASTER!”
Suddenly Slim froze. He straightened. He turned and started walking away from the mouth of the cavern of smelly black goo. He walked amongst the golden groves of mushrooms in the cavern they were in bending and looking and examining and sniffing until suddenly he fell to his knees with a long wail.
Stick and the rather plump government men rushed to where he knelt. There on the ground before him was a little pile of smelly black goo.
Slim stood. He was shaking. He turned and walked past Stick and the rather plump government men and returned to the brick layers. They stopped working and gathered around him while he pointed to the entrance to the cavern they were in and gave instructions. The brick layers gathered their tools and went to the trolleys of bricks and started to push them towards the entrance. Slim followed them and Stick and the rather plump government men followed him.
Very soon the bricklayers were hard at work laying bricks and Slim was wandering amongst the golden mushrooms again. He spent a long time checking every mushroom in the cavern and when he seemed satisfied there was no smelly black goo he went and sat near the brick layers. Stick and the rather plump government men came and sat with him. The rather plump government men talked amongst themselves of the problems of government which were all about foreign loans and exchange rates and illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries. Stick sat silently by Slim and they both watched the brick layers.
Slim stared off into the distance his mind full of the sorts of thoughts you have when you have recently thought about things that filled you with fear. His mind was no longer racing but rather it was numb and the occasional thoughts that would knock on the door of his mind would get no answer and thinking that there was nobody home would go their own way. Every once in a while he would come back to earth for long enough to glance at the brick layers before drifting off again into that state that we experience after we have been subject to “flight or fight” taking over our bodies.
It was while he was drifting in and out of this state of tired numbness that he noticed the eyes. He was staring unseeing off into the darkness in a corner of the cavern when he realised that something was staring back at him. Two bright golden stars were there in the darkness and they were staring unblinking into his. As his attention focused on the eyes he could see that they were in a small black face and that the small black face was hanging beneath the black body of a bat. He saw all this without once breaking the intense stare that he and the bat were sharing. As he looked deeper into those stars of golden brightness everything else around him seemed to fall away and melt into nothing until suddenly he realised that he was no longer in the caverns. He tried to look around but he could not break his stare not even to blink. Though the eyes held him he could see enough to realise where he was. All around him stretched the land that had been known as the land of the skinny people but was now known as the land of the plump people. As his awareness opened out he realised that all about him were the people of his land. He could hear them and he could even smell them. Though they seemed far away he could sense them all and every one as if they were sitting with him in a quiet room. But they were not quiet. They were all shouting and many of them were screaming. They were shouting and arguing with each other and as he understood that things were not well in the land he realised that there was also fighting. All about him were people in turmoil and as he listened he could hear what they were yelling and screaming.
Called a chorus of voices.
Cried another group.
Slim realised he was shaking. It did not feel like fear but it was annoying. The eyes held him with their intensity and brightness while all around him people were fighting and raging and screaming. He could see that there were groups of people waving big signs with words on them that were the same words that they were shouting. He suddenly realised that they were all fighting and arguing about mushrooms. There were no longer enough mushrooms to go around and one group of people was calling for the other group of people to tighten their belts while the other group of people was calling on the first group to tighten theirs and share what they had with the rest. The first group of people were rather plump and Slim could sense that amongst them were the government men and the soldiers and other groups of people who were part of the grand industry of mushrooms while the second group were not quite so plump but were a much bigger group of people. He recognised his family – his little sister grown up and hugging a child to her breast and two others to her legs – his father leaning on a cane and his mother holding an empty rice bowl. Thousands of people. Millions of people. And they were all calling for more mushrooms while the government men and the soldiers were calling for control and for everyone to tighten their belts. The noise of them rose like a storm all around him.
Slim was shaking violently now. The eyes were holding him and the noise of the people was engulfing him and all the while he was shaking. He felt himself asking the eyes “why” but the eyes just shone brightly and devoured him with their intensity until with the noise and the shaking and the piercing of his soul Slim cried into the night.
“Slim! Wake up! Slim”
“Slim wake up. The rain has stopped. We can go now.” It was Stick and he was shaking Slim by the shoulder.
Slim came awake. The dawn light was sneaking through the bushes at the mouth of the cave and falling on his face. He looked around for the eyes but he knew that they were gone. It had been an incredible dream. He pulled his skinny body from where he had fallen asleep and stood.
He moved towards the mouth of the cave.
“What’s that smell?”
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