PENANCE: a fable (2004)

There once was a land,
not very far away but quite some time ago,
that for the most part kept itself at peace
with its neighbors.

But every once in a while (humans being humans)
they would find themselves in situations
where it appeared that a war was necessary…
But this was no small matter.

The men and women who felt they had to fight in the war
to protect their fields, their families
would leave their villages quietly
no marches, no parades
and there would be funerals as soon as they left
for the other people realized
that the people who returned from the war
would not be the same people.

They would go, they would fight and die and kill
and then those who could would come back
but not right away…

Rather they would spend some time (sometimes years)
working to repair the damage —
either in the country where they had fought
or elsewhere in their own country
but they would stay away from their homes
their families
and the rest of the people for a while
till they felt, as they put it,
“that their hands were clean.”

And this was called the time of penance.

And the rulers of the country too
knew that war was no small thing
And before declaring it
They spent days in seclusion
And mourned the decision once it was made

During the war, their rule was absolute
And no one questioned them
But after the war was over
the members of the ruling council would resign
and live the rest of their lives in quiet simplicity
Near poverty, in fact
Lest anyone suspect they had waged the war
And sent their countrymen to kill and fight and die
for their own personal gain.

And this was their penance.

But then a young prince came up through the ranks
And his name was Arbusto Zukud
And Arbusto learned the ways of his people
But in his heart he had other ideas

For he realized that if the war never ended
then they need never do

penance

again…

And so it was

One war followed another
So smoothly it all appeared to the people to be just one war
All the same war
And after a while
There started to be parades when the men and women left
And when they came out
They came right home
With the war still in them
And there at home, the enemy was not there
But they still felt at war
So they created enemies within their own houses
Parents, spouses, children
The war went inside them
And burned out the heart of the country

Arbusto lived long, and his empire grew enormous
But one day he lost that war we all must lose
The war with time
And he died
And his empire collapsed shortly thereafter

With barely a trace remaining

And here is the judgement he was given:
Never to know rest or peace
But to always be fighting
To always be striving to conquer everything
Since he was unwilling to conquer himself

And so it is
Walk anywhere in the south, you will see it
Always reaching out, trying to cover all in its path
Arbusto Zukud, the bush, kudzu
This is why you must always watch that bush,
those bushes,
carefully

And keep them trimmed back,
or pull them up by the roots
Or else they will consume your house

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