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Bewildering Stories

Vow of Silence

by Robert Laughlin

Chapter 7. The Tale of the Founder

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Vow of Silence
Author: Robert Laughlin
Publisher: Trytium Publishing, LLC
Date: Dec. 1, 2008
Trade Paperback: 214 pp.
ISBN: 0979841348; 9780979841348
If it were built today, any realtor would criticize the Dreiden Knowlodge for wasting building space — it was a huge ovoid dome of black basalt in the middle of a large plaza. Baris sent me to the first and largest institution of its kind, just to acquaint me with its workings. I could research any topic I liked or nothing at all. I crossed the plaza wondering why the architect had turned out such an eccentric design, and then realized the building’s resemblance to a half-buried skull. Circumferential wings at the dome’s narrower end had a likeness to zygomatic arches, and a partitioned entrance arch at that end reminded me of a nasal cavity with its septum. I paid the hefty admission fee and went inside.

The Knowlodge didn’t have an auditorium interior. Its space was divided into levels with standard heights, each level taken up with rows of conference niches. Within each niche was a Registrar who had mastered some fragment of the total holdings and would relate any part of it for a fee. I later learned that nearly half the Registrars in Dreiden worked in the Knowlodge, and though a handful of Cartists could remember as much as a building full of these lesser Datists, the former couldn’t respond to the inquiring people of a metropolis all at once.

The Registrars were busily disbursing information on every imaginable topic, from civics to shipbuilding. The volume of sound produced by scores of voices in a confined space was something I’d never heard before, and the Knowlodge’s baffled ceilings and cork walls were more a repetitious joke than worthwhile sound reduction features. My training to monitor each speaker made this mass of unconnected talk even more distracting and soon I was heading away from the Registrar I had asked about, having taken the wrong path through the filed niches.

For my Datistry entrance test, I had verbally recounted the path through a drawing of a labyrinth, one with thirty-four potential wrong turns, after studying it for only half a minute. This present lapse was so humiliating that I wanted to demand silence, to make the Registrars and their patrons leave the building and conduct business out on the plaza. The impulse fled a moment later, when I understood that the voices holding forth all around me were the sound of civilization itself. The passion to formulate, communicate, and remember was the hallmark of a sentient species, one that examines its condition in order to better it, and so produces a body of divergent knowledge no individual can encompass. I felt silly to have gotten confused, but I was accustomed to constant stillness before coming to Dreiden.

I got my bearings and went straight to the niche I wanted. Sitting alone in her partitioned little domain, several empty chairs clustered around her, was a doe-eyed woman whose mustard breast-patch leaped from her plain gray dress.

“Classical song, sir.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

In I went and down I sat; she marked the time of my entry on a gauge fastened to the fabric-covered wall. I chose this subject, in part, because it would be easy to make an accurate report to Baris — Datists and non-Datists alike know rhymes aid the memory. Above that, I really wanted to know more about music. My studies had left me little time to attend concerts, but my contact with street musicians and their eclectic repertory had shown me how much more there was than the plainsong I’d grown up with.

Wanting to know the full range of choices before settling on my first, I confessed my ignorance of music history to the Registrar. She responded with a twenty-minute capsule history of the development of music and I took it all in without interrupting. A career in the Datistry isn’t a profession in the usual sense, so I had to pick up the equivalent of a liberal education through my own efforts.

“Have you decided what you’d like to hear?” she asked when the history lecture was over.

“Yes. I’m in the mood for storytelling. How about the Tale of the Founder?”

The Registrar smiled approvingly and drew a harp and plectrum from a recess under her chair.

The Tale of the Founder was the oldest musical narrative extant. Its nameless author had taken the semi-mythical origin of Dreiden for his topic. The legend was known to the whole world — I knew it from childhood and knew of the Tale too, though my family and childhood friends could only relate bits and pieces of it.

The Registrar began the Tale:

The Founder was the remnant of a tribe of herdsmen, the rest of whom died of famine when their cattle were wiped out by disease. The starving boy survived because he had wandered away from his dead parents’ encampment and was taken in by another tribe that happened to pass near. They were following migrating game and made no effort to save the boy’s comrades; any delay would have let their food supply elude them, and they and the Founder would have starved together.

The new tribe was different in its economy and handicrafts but identical in that its existence was marginal at best. Fluctuating game populations made it hard for the tribe to provide for itself and, even in good times, the crippled and elderly were routinely killed because they threatened the tribe’s most valued resource: mobility. When the Founder was old enough, he went on his own to a fisher tribe reportedly living where the coast paralleled the game trails. He hoped for a better life than he’d known before, but was also moved by curiosity, the urge to learn the ways of a strange people.

This began a long period of wandering. The Founder roamed over the known world seeking a tribe that could offer him a secure and rewarding life. It was a futile quest; every tribe was in difficult circumstances because none had more than a fraction of the knowledge they needed to survive and flourish. Some knew the ways of game and could identify forage fit for consumption, while other tribes stayed in one place and cultivated a few edibles suited to the climate and soil. Tools, clothes, and vessels were fashioned from plant and animal remains by the more mobile tribes, and from earthen substances by the tribes that were stationary. Each tribe was especially gifted in some way, be it healing or building or lawmaking. Scattered as they were, the tribes couldn’t pool their acquired knowledge to the benefit of all, and out of this situation grew the Founder’s great purpose: he would bring every tribe to one place where they could live together as one people.

Over many years, he traveled the world to account for every last tribe, asking each newfound tribe to furnish news of its neighbors’ whereabouts. The Founder was determined that no portion of humanity would be excluded from the new nation and no learning lost to it. His knowledge of the world made an impression wherever he went, as did the artifacts of other tribes that he took for payment. He was often asked to marry into the tribes he visited and always declined, feeling it was unfair to ask any woman to desert her kin in order to follow him on his lifelong mission.

This task finally accomplished, the Founder had to seek a place of settlement that would supply every need of a large, industrious population. After a long search, he decided on a fertile valley not unlike the grazing fields of his distant childhood, a place with mild weather and abundant timber and minerals in the hills beyond. Then he rode to every one of the tribes to invite them to the new settlement, beginning with those farthest away. He gave travel directions to each and said he would watch for their arrival.

The Founder slowly wound his way to the settlement, his very last visit paid to a tribe of cliff dwellers who grew lichens and moss, and trained falcons to hunt. It was late autumn, and the Founder was an old man. He had persevered in his cause, ranging over vastly more of the world than anyone before, suffering exhaustion and starvation and exposure to the elements. His vitality had drained away, and now he was faint and feverish. The cliff people urged him to stay with them till his health returned, but the tribes were soon to appear at the settlement; he had to be there to greet them, or they would go back to their wretched homes and all his effort would have been for nothing. The Founder rode the last two days to the settlement without stopping to rest. When he finally saw the valley before him, bathed and shining bright in the full moonlight, he fell into a spent sleep, still mounted on his sweating horse.

Chest pain woke the Founder before dawn. He was almost too weak to move and coughed up blood when he forced himself upright on his horse. The truth was plain; the Founder would die before even one tribe had entered the valley settlement. With the last of his strength, the Founder prodded his horse and rode to a nearby stand of walnut trees, now bare in the dry autumn morning. The well-matured trees grew as thickly as though planted by man, and their nutritious nuts and beautiful wood made them the single most valuable asset of the settlement. The Founder slid painfully off his horse into a carpet of withered walnut leaves. After the animal had wandered off to safety, the Founder performed the action that would seal his purpose — with two flints, he set the leaves ablaze.

When the first-arrived tribe found the walnut grove’s remains, its last embers were two days cool. The Founder hadn’t welcomed the tribesmen when they entered the valley, so they cast around for a sign from him before concluding they had gone to the wrong place. The tribesmen knew from the surviving trees at the outskirts of the blaze that they’d lost a resource of great value, and wondered if lightning could have been responsible. An elder tribesman disagreed.

“The Founder brought us together to give us the benefit of one another’s knowledge. Now we see the consequences of knowledge misapplied. It is the sign he left us and here is where we shall live.”

The tribe decided to stay. All doubt of this being the chosen place vanished when the other tribes filtered in, one by one. The Founder’s blackened bones were later found half-settled into the scorched turf, and the cliff dwellers testified that he was ill when he left them. The spot where the walnut grove stood was honored as the site of Dreiden, the world’s first city.

This is the story of the Founder and his Tale. The Registrar had warned me that the unfamiliarity of early music styles would make this piece a tough listen and that was true enough, but the beauty and conviction of her singing would have won me over with any material. This matronly woman deserved to be famous, performing for sellout crowds. Instead, she was dusting off ancient lore for an audience of one, with a droning background of people asking how to build an apiary and what are the melting points of tin and antimony. She seemed content, even grateful, to have been allotted this societal berth.

“Did you enjoy the performance?”

“Yes, ma’am, but I have to be going now.”

I paid her and left. On my way out of the Knowlodge, I pondered whether kicking a divot out of their precious cork wall would make me feel better.

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Laughlin

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