by Ken Poyner
Over the years, we had exhausted nearly all of our building materials. The trees had receded farther and farther away and we were but a spot of village in a fast ocean of flat plain. Early in our history, we had taken to lashing grasses together to make our roofs, and fencing was but a stench of sticks run each against the suppleness of the other. But these could not make good walls. Mud brick, with the ever present straw mixed in for sturdiness, was the rage for a while, but the river itself was beginning to get thin and our worries were that dung and piss were not enough alone to make the elastic that goes with dust and straw to make brick; and with water leaving us nearly as fast as did the trees, we began to worry how quickly we could expand, how effectively we could repair.
People who had the most substantial wooden houses and outlying structures began to secure their timbers, to tie extra straps around the more unnecessary supports of their existing constructions; to count and number their wooden planks. Indelible brands were fashioned and men gifted in calligraphy found employment in marking other families’ wood with suspicious signs and warning ideograms. Our idea of community became infected with the economics of separateness and the necessary public identification of one’s good fortune.
Imagine our relief when at first the ministries arrived. Initially, it was the Christians, with thick, large print Bibles, with hard covers and bow laced spines. Turned spine out, these could be stacked nearly three feet high without support. Beyond three feet, artisans – often those who had been employed earlier in calligraphy and then rapidly unemployed with the coming of religion – learned to drill small holes through the centers of the texts, leaving the books individually structurally sound, but now supported with a string through the center when stacked together. Before our innovation, piled too high a stack would get rickety; but, stringed together, you could stack Bibles tall enough to make a single story, a wall rising from the ground to the ventilation slice left just beneath the edge of the overhanging roof.
There were only so many Bibles, though the Christians were quick to give us more, not themselves venturing far enough into the village to see where our new construction projects lie and how we made good sense out of their Bibles. They would stand at the back of their trucks, carefully passing out the books, unaware that most of the recipients could not read, nor wanted to read. What the recipients wanted was a wall that held back the wind when the seasons changed, or kept the neighbors’ dogs from too early in the life of dinner scavenging the scraps.
Our villagers would rally to the Christians’ trucks and dance in short hops like the Christians expected us to do, and after our show and the great noise of celebration we would make, they would supply us with ever more building material.
It was only a month or so of this monopoly before other faiths caught on to the fervor of our willingness for conversion. How such a small village could hold so much religious revivalism and appetite for religious conformity they could not know, but soon we had not only Bibles, but The Book of Mormon and the Koran and even a few Rigvedas appearing. Some had better covers than others; some had firmer spines. All, however, were less work than walking all the way to the tree line, finding suitably straight or stiff wood, felling it, then dragging it all the way back, only then to have to defend it from those who would take it in the night as the harvester recovered from his labors. Religion was free. It was easy to carry. In numbers, and properly contorted, stacked and reinforced, the books of religion made for acceptable foundations, serviceable walls, precise dividers.
Wood would always be better, but printed words were easier.
At first, we mixed whatever we were given, but we later found that, for structural integrity, books of the same size and fashion went best together. Three Bibles stacked together worked better than two Bibles and a Koran. A dozen Books of Mormon could make a wall; though if you mixed in a Bible and a Rig-Veda and two Korans, the confabulation began to lean, to form around the incongruities between each book. Religious faith was an abstract all the book givers may have held dear, but we worried what would hum in a good wind, what might stretch the string running through the books’ middles, what might come down in the middle of the night and startle a man and wife out of their business of making the next generation.
A market sprang up. What books a family amassed at any one encounter depended entirely on who drove up and where the family might be in line when the gifting began; but what they needed for construction essentially was determined by what they had started with. Mornings, vendors would gather and trade perhaps two Bibles for one Koran or three Rigvedas for two Books of Mormon. Each day the exchange rate changed, based on need and availability and who had come through proselytizing most recently. The trading grew more important as more religious texts entered circulation and our wants evolved from the merely structural to the aesthetic. Even though a main house might be built all of Bibles and a shed behind constructed purely of Rigvedas, with no architectural sin being committed, nonetheless families began to construct their entire compounds with only one randomly selected religion’s text, preferring the smooth and uniform aesthetics, the easiness of line, the freedom from having to adapt one’s visual expectations.
As more and more missionaries came to us, unloading ever more books, we began to develop compounds all of one look, spots of religious unanimity fenced off from differing religious construction. People were proud of the consistent conviction of their structures. Even the people whose homes were made of wood began to bring home religious tracts, to paste Korans and Bibles and Books of Mormon and Rigvedas against their outer walls, to make the show of cheap construction even though they were solid behind their old-growth tree lumber. Some would not admit to having wood at all, as they lounged behind their log interiors and never let their neighbors know that only the outer walls were over-patches of faith.
Then one day a government worker came by and said we will have a school. She opened the back of her truck and had our men drag out boxes of books – grammars and mathematics texts and histories and economics mysteries. We opened the boxes and the vendors from the market came by and everyone tested the spines and marveled at the thickness of some volumes, lamented the thinness of others. Organized as we were into separate constructions of religions, we thought at first to see how these books could be used to make new and separate structures. Forewarned of the coming of education, we had already built the school house out of hundreds of Books of Mormon, so these for that project would be pure excess. What now to do with them? Coming from the government, we knew the supply of these new books would not be endless. Yet, surely, some who remained at our fringes could use the menagerie of volumes for their own small projects, construct hovels, make for all of us a public outhouse or two, architect a structure we would not expect to endure, or worry with plans for repair. In no time at all, these new books would be gone, no consistent replacements shipped, and whatever we could do with them forgotten. Nothing but flimsy construction: good riddance.
But when the faithful come to convert us, we stand in line for their everlasting paperboard covers and wickedly hard spines.
KEN POYNER is the author of “Constant Animals”, 42 brief, unruly fictions, available ($4.99) as an e-book at:
All God’s creatures deserve a chance. Consider shelter pet adoption. A life needs you. www.kpoyner.com