Autumn wind/A beggar looks at me/Comparing



This particular story starts about two thousand years after a relatively small, but smugly vocal proportion of the world’s population believes a nice Jewish boy was nailed up on a rather seedy cross, and concerns, or at least occasionally mentions a certain Thomas D Milton III. How and why he came by this rather awkward name has been chronicled elsewhere, and frankly I don’t feel like retyping thirty odd, and one or two downright strange, pages just to bring you up to date.

Anyway, it should be noted, that Thomas had dropped the old family name of Wordsworth on the grounds that the first three initials said it all, and tacking Wordsworth on the end was just needlessly redundant. Where the “III” came from was always a mystery to Thomas, but his mother would get this wistful look in her eyes and fidget awkwardly with her handkerchief for a few seconds, and then change the subject whenever he asked her about it. Similarly, if you ask Thomas why he kept the III when he dropped the Wordsworth portion of his old name he will just fumble with the change in his pocket for a few seconds and stare out the window.

No one knows where the D came from.

Over the course of these two millennia the planet Earth had had a few volcanoes—the geologic equivalent of a mild case of acne—and made a few rather minor adjustments in the position of its continents. Lately, however, Earth had begun to notice that some of the life infesting its surface had started blowing stuff up with things that did rather more damage than was really necessary. Normally a planet will barely notice the tiny things scuttling around on it in much the same way you don’t notice the mites living in your eyebrows, but this latest development was downright bothersome. Granted it wasn’t as bad as having a major asteroid run into you, but it did leave visible scars and was causing some rather hurtful speculation about Earth’s personal hygiene.

Otherwise the ages plodded on pretty much as usual.

Humans, on the other hand, were strutting around feeling pretty damned important, thank you. They had, as far as they were concerned, invented some really amazing things, including bombs that did rather more damage than was really necessary, along with pick-up trucks, grain futures, country music, French cooking, conference calls and telemarketing. That all of these things had been invented and discarded as useless, if not criminal, by the life forms on countless other planets didn’t bother humans in the least because they didn’t know about those other planets and wouldn't believe you if you told them.

This doesn’t mean that humans think they are alone in the Universe. Quite the contrary. The human ego demands that there must be other beings in the Universe if only to look in awe at what they, humans that is, have accomplished. Currently the theories concerning the population of the universe break down to:
  • Those who think that we are being visited all the time, but aliens are just so shy they can only work up the nerve to land in front of one or two people at a time and so far have been unable to catch any of the world’s leaders in an Arkansas swamp. Although, they did come close in the 1990s.
  • Those who believe that while we are the only mortals inhabiting the cosmos, there is also some sort of all powerful Being out there who created us to have someone to talk to, and occasionally smite. The fact that this Being hasn’t really had anything to say for two thousand years, discounting the dubious reports of a few individuals with obvious hair gel addictions, hasn’t seemed to stop them from believing we are his special friends.
  •  And finally, those who think we are the equivalent of frogs in some sort of galactic pond, and every once in a while the junior high students come around to collect a few of us to have a try at dissection.
  •  There are those who believe there are simply oodles of civilizations zipping around the galaxy, but space is just so huge that we haven’t bumped into each other yet.
The other consideration, which humans never think of because it doesn’t fit in with their view of their own cleverness, is that the other life forms living on this side of the galaxy know we are here, but avoid us in much the same way you avoid that cousin who thinks professional wrestling is for real and has those disturbing stains on his pants.

Now one of the more interesting, if not useful, inventions we humans managed to come up with over the two thousand years we have been talking about was printing. It seems that for most of the long, mostly forgotten history of humankind either you or your mate actually had to remember everything you needed to know to survive. I mean everything. Stuff like:
  • How to find and catch dinner without doing too much damage to yourself.
  • How to keep the neighborhood lion from feeding her family with yours.
  • What the exact procedures were when someone had coveted your ass (or worse yet, your wife’s ass).
  • Where to find water when the rainy season ended.
  • How to build a shelter, a fire and a baby carrier.
  • Which day was the first day of spring.
  • Which mushrooms were safe to eat, which ones would cause you to see strange things, and which ones would kill you.
  • Which oak tree marked the southern limit of your clan’s hunting territory.
  • Which way was South.
  • Where it was safe to cross the river, and where to suggest strangers cross it when they came by trying to sell you some kind of god.
  • How to keep the kids amused in the evening.
And that’s just for starters.

Some villages had old people (thirty-five, maybe even forty years old) whose job it was to remember stuff. Stuff like:
• It was the winter the wolves killed Pluug One Hand’s white bull that Ragnar took  Brindula for a wife.
• Lief Wind Blown is the son of Lief the elder, son of Herb who was Ragnar’s brother, son of Smelt who was the son of Quail Bushbane.
• Briknal, Brindula’s oldest brother, was given the hovel of Blister, his father, and the field of muck next to the fen the same year Klink died.

Then when someone came along and claimed Briknal was living in a hovel that was really theirs the village elders would get together, and one or these old people would say something like, “It was the winter Klink died, which was just two winters after Ragnar took Brindula for a wife, when Blister, Briknal and Brindula’s father, gave Briknal that hovel along with the field of muck next to the fen,” and the case would be thrown out.

Then someone figured out that marks left on a convenient rock or leaf or piece of skin (a real breakthrough was made when someone thought of using the side without the hair) could be used to represent things like the number of goats the family had that morning, or how many days had passed since the river flooded, or the number of days since the sun was exactly over the big oak tree; and all of a sudden a person didn't need to remember all those pesky little facts anymore. Now they could look up that morning’s goat inventory whenever someone like a tax collector came around asking. This eventually led to people using these marks to represent other things—like the color blue and how it made them feel.

Taking the quite unheard of step of accepting an advancement in knowledge the Church decided this new writing thing was just what they needed to help spread the Word, as it were. Eventually quite an industry of transcribing the Holy Word developed. Well, actually lots of Holy Words—there wasn’t just The One. God was quite old even then and had begun repeating himself with embarrassing regularity, and He had this maddening habit of mixing the details up just a bit each time He told the story. Did He create animals first and then Man, or did Man come first? That kind of thing. It was a muddle, and each time it got written down it got a little more muddled. You would almost think the whole thing was being made up as it went along.

The one thing He never wavered on, however, was that The Word came first. He was sometimes a little iffy about which Word it was, but it was definitely a Word. If pressed He would often just thunder, “It was The Word.” Then he would show you a picture of Lot’s wife and a recipe for Salted Herring He’d been thinking of trying. His hints are not what you would call subtle—or tasteful—especially the Salted Herring. Actually, I have it on good authority that the Word was Kumquat. No particular reason. He just liked it.

And so generations of monks went blind copying sacred texts for the greater glory of God, and the continuing comfort of their abbot, bishop and pope. Day after day they would sit next to an unglazed window sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter so they could have enough light to work. This was long before those fancy monasteries of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries were built. We’re talking little wattle and daub hovels with a dirt floor whose main function was to define the tiny bit of muck you were allowed to sleep on; and if you were extremely lucky there would be a bit of straw and a blanket.

Of course every now and again the Vikings would come calling in that amusing little way they had—usually on the first day it was warm enough you weren’t freezing those bits of your body the Church had told you not to touch. Leif and Company would spend a delightful afternoon pillaging and slaughtering. Eventually, perhaps after a picnic and a friendly round of target practice with your second cousin, now permanently removed, they would leave and the survivors would make sure the bits of you they could find got a decent burial. Then someone else would move into what was left of your hut and take up where you had left off.

Writing still, however, had the disadvantage of being just a tad bit slow at reproducing the longer attempts at describing the color blue and the more profound emotions it created in you, and when your publishing house is only cranking out a single copy of the Omnibus Edition of Aristotle every four months or so, you tend to charge just a bit more than the average serf has at hand. For this reason, and a few others having to do with control and domination, writing and reading became specialized knowledge that was reserved for a few unfortunate monks busy dodging Vikings; and some quite well fed scribes keeping track of the king’s stuff and all of the decrees kings are apt to make. This way when you were caught wearing the exact wrong shade of blue they could point to a piece of parchment that neither you nor the king could read, and declare that you must give up your estate, or head, for the heinous crime of wearing the Azure Royale.

Eventually, someone figured out that you could carve a picture of, say, a Saint into a piece of wood or soft stone, smear some ink on it and then press it against a piece of parchment or vellum, and right there before your very eyes would be a picture of your favorite Saint, suitable for framing. And the really neat thing was you could have as many pictures of that saint as you wanted without having to draw it each time. There was, of course, some grumbling by the Saint drawing monks about being put out of work, and poor quality reproductions, but they were soon quelled when it was pointed out that this would now allow them the time to move on to some of the more fun saints like those with arrows sticking out of them with strangely disturbing connotations.

Stumble forward several generations, and finally someone figures out movable type. (Meanwhile the Chinese are wondering what took us so long. Then they remembered we couldn’t even figure out how to make noodles, and things started to make a little more sense.)

At last, printing was getting cheap enough that pretty much everything you needed to know could be looked up in a book. As printing became less and less expensive and more and more stuff could be looked up, people naturally began remembering less and less about their world until a fair number of them couldn’t find the Atlantic Ocean from a Miami Beach hotel without two maps and a fairly lucky guess as to direction.

What all this has to do with the story is still being debated.