Bright magic, p.21
Bright Magic, p.21Alfred Doblin
They spoke the way people had when building the Tower of Babel, and they went right to work. And the fat bee queen on her giant bed gazed sadly at her swollen body: “It would have been so nice, but it wasn’t meant to be. I was just about to lay another five hundred eggs. But now it’s no fun, for me or for the poor little ones I would be sending into such a world.”
And she sent off the ladies-in-waiting who had wanted to feed her, and proclaimed that as soon as she felt better she wanted to retreat into private life. Her idea was to have a mobile single cell built for her, with bees in front and bees behind. She would sit inside and be chauffeured around and finally see something of the world. Aside from that, she practiced birth control.
In fact, with the help of a group of unemployed drones as up for adventure as she was, she succeeded in constructing an unusual contraption that could not really be called a cell anymore, even if it was built from the same materials as a cell: wood chewed thin as papier-mâché and wax. It had, as was fitting for the stature of a queen, a comfortable, elongated shape, with windows cut into the front and both sides for the head and the arms, so that she could observe, wave, and command. She had this vehicle—for that is what it was—carried by two dozen extra-strong worker bees, and hitched up fifty of the bravest drones, the knights and cavaliers, as a cavalcade and honor guard. Besides that, she was surrounded by an ever-changing swarm of curious bees, her former subjects. And so she set off to find adventure, in the forest and on the heath. Her knights had reconfigured their sting apparatuses in such a way that they could be shot like darts or lances. And with the help of these freelancers, the queen (known as the Queen of Spades for her sharply pointed sting) followed the calling of a robber baron, terrifying the larger and smaller animal world throughout the area with the cunning and rapidity of her conquests. The area in question was the Lüneburg Heath in northern Germany.
The Queen of Spades at last fell into a trap she had laid for a herd of wethers. She had planned to take revenge on a shepherd, through his herd, for a number of her knights he had killed. The terrorism that the queen and her band were unleashing no longer stopped short of human beings.
“Humans,” the queen cried, “have stolen the honey from our un-suspecting bee-peoples for thousands of years. We demand it back! Let us sting the humans until they return it, plague them, leave them no peace, until they sweat honey!”—a war cry that the flying and buzzing throngs far and wide furiously echoed.
Wasps and flies signed on as native auxiliary troops. Localities in the Lüneburg Heath and beyond were raided by the bands, harassed to such an extent that the farmers fled their homes and farms— which the triumphant bees and their auxiliaries then occupied and settled into. Laughing, Buzz-buzz-zuria the bee queen, who had slimmed down by then, had the deeds she had wreaked upon the animal and human world inscribed in yellow honey-script on wax tablets. The tablets were affixed to the trees, low enough for everyone to be able to read them, and whoever passed or flew by had to stop and salute the tablets, upon pain of being shot by the bee-police on patrol everywhere.
Now when the shepherd, Wendelin, took no notice of the great events and simply continued to pasture his flock and defend himself against the rampaging bee-menace as best he could (going around armored in leather and gauze day and night), Buzz-zuria ordered a concerted attack on his wethers—their noses, eyes, and mouths. The battle raged, pricking and stinging. The sheep stampeded whatever they could. After two terrible days of battle, Wendelin resorted to a cunning ruse of war. He challenged the queen to a duel! He asked to face her, without armor, on the field of battle.
He put on a show of saluting several of the wax tablets proclaiming the earlier bee victories, whereupon Buzz-zuria, in a gracious mood and taken in, accepted. She went so far as to plan in advance the gravesite for Wendelin, the first human to be eliminated by her people.
The duel took place the following evening, on a lovely, warm July day, at the fairgrounds. The sheep, to the extent that their eyes and noses were not too swollen, formed a ring of spectators (while the others rested at a distance, ready to move out).
Wendelin, himself stung only on the hands up until that point, awaited his opponent in the ring. The friendly, pitiful mää-mää cries from his sheep encouraged and comforted him, but he was certain of his defeat. For above the ring an army with overwhelming numerical superiority was whirring and flocking—whole clouds of bees, wasps, and flies. Their humming, buzzing, and zipping frightened him, nor had he failed to notice the special preparations the bees had made: He had heard several groups of bees singing funeral marches and the one they were planning to bury, he suspected, was him. But he had made his preparations too. He had bribed a hornet, and the moment Queen Buzz-zuria and her mighty cavalcade burst upon him, the heroic hornet shot into the field of combat, which no one was supposed to enter.
“Out of the ring!” Buzz-zuria cried.
The hornet jeered. She hated the bees and trusted Wendelin, who for his part trusted her. At once the cavalcade, led by the queen herself, hurtled into the ring and began to hunt the mischief-making gadfly. That was precisely wise Wendelin’s plan.
Because now the hornet, after a few feints, flew into the wide-open mouth of the bellwether, another accomplice in Wendelin’s plot. This wide-open mouth had been lined with fresh grass by the wise shepherd, who had foreseen the coming events. When the royal troop of knights (who already thought they had the shepherd’s burial in the bag) raced after the little bugger undaunted by death, and plunged into the animal’s green mouth, the wether captain left the allied hornet just enough time to slip out through a gap in his teeth on one side, then slammed his massive jaw shut and ground to a pulp everyone and everything that found itself there between his gums and his tongue—all the evildoers who had so cruelly afflicted the animals on the heath, and especially Buzz-zuria, the first and last warrior queen of the bees, her waxen war chariot, and the numerous honey provisions carts rattling behind it, along with the many spears and darts that the troops carried with them but could not use, there was no point: The strong grass snapped every last one.
And that was that for royal splendor, and wise Wendelin let out such a loud cry of victory that all the bees and wasps and flies looking on understood what had happened and fled. The wethers bleated a song of thanks for hours, delighting Wendelin and the many animals who had suffered under the dreadful horrors and highway robbery. The Tower of Babel built by the rebellious bees who had presumptuously abandoned the traditional hexagonal system was then easily plundered by some badgers and weasels. It is from their stories that we know the madness that went on there, how every bee drank nectar only for himself and got drunk and how no one made any more honey for general consumption, except for the small quantity Buzz-zuria demanded.
But the revolution drew closer to mankind by the day. In those times, you would often see cafégoers in the cities sitting gloomily at their tables. They would glance at the newspapers, read for a while, then turn back to their coffees and stir them with little spoons and shake them, obviously without achieving the desired effect. What was going on? What was wrong with them? They brooded over their cups. The individual component parts of their coffees refused to combine. People poured in sugar—one spoonful, two spoonfuls, three—and the coffee stayed bitter. Why? The sugar lay down on the bottom of the cup and there it stayed, as a layer. It didn’t dissolve. It didn’t dream of dissolving. It stayed what it was, wanting no part in the old mishmash.
Something different might have been expected of the milk that found itself in the cup—namely that, as a liquid, it would mix with the coffee and form drinkable coffee. Nothing doing. It swam on top, white, cold, imperious, refusing to be annexed. Anyone who wanted to drink milk would have to drink milk as milk. It was a curious, improbable sight. But it couldn’t be argued away, and even furious shaking and strong words to the waiters didn’t help. Cafégoers had to scoop up the milk with a spoon, sip the black bitter coffee (whi
Things were gearing up for a blockade of humankind. It got bad when the doctrine of materialism reached the cattle. It took them by storm, gaining ground effortlessly. Nor was there any initial depression here—they moved quickly to deeds.
The bulls had already known for a long time, and passed down to their children, that not much came of thinking. Unlike the tiger and the elephants, they saw the light instantly and without requiring further proof. Materialism fit them like a glove. And what did they do to profess their faith in it? Let us hear.
They scoffed at heat. They lay as happy as you please in the cooking pot, in boiling water, as though taking a hot bath, and stayed raw. Suddenly the meat turned hard as a rock and had to be thrown out.
People took a new piece of meat. The same act: splashing in the warm bath, tough, then rock-hard. If it had been considerate (and still out to do something extravagant), it could have let itself liquefy, then people could have enjoyed the beef as soup, bouillon, extract. Instead it stayed hard and inedible. Let humans see what matter is.
The action spread to sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, and ducks, who since time immemorial had formed a brotherhood for the nourishment of humans. They fulfilled this difficult calling by sacrificing their own lives. They gave their utmost for humankind (the ox right down to the oxtail, as we know)—the same humankind to whom they now owed the new theories. (It was a bitter blow for humanity, to have their own teachings now turned against them.)
Pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, etc. suddenly had something better to do than feed people.
The housewives stormed the markets. They overran the butchers. Everyone said they had “gotten the bad piece.” But for everybody to have gotten the bad piece was, of course, impossible. Someone must have gotten the good piece, but who? There was no one who had, not even the butchers’ wives. A single, piercing cry of protest rang out.
It reached the ears of the old cattle-pig-etc. brotherhood and was met with satisfaction and pride. Not a single brother had deserted. The animals, like the beef, had stayed firm.
Panic seized the butchers. Housewives formed combat battalions and attacked and massacred the innocent butchers, or forced them into their freezers. The butchers who survived or could save themselves ran out to the country, to the ranchers and stockbreeders, to take revenge on them. Met by manure pitchforks, they had no choice but to calm down and listen to what the ranchers had to say. The ranchers showed them their own broken teeth. The cattle were acting out against them too.
At that point, battles broke out in the cities for meat grinders and milling machines that could mince the meat. The army sent in military engineers to blow up the meat in the cattle yards with dynamite. That did break it into small enough pieces but gave it a nasty dynamite flavor. There were fights over artificial dentures, and dentists worked in day and night shifts since everyone needed a new set of teeth every week. Dining rooms had to be furnished differently: Every place setting now included an anvil, and instead of a knife and fork, a hammer and saw to carve up the meat (electric in the better households).
Some said you had to not give the cows, etc. a chance to make their flesh hard. You had to take them by surprise and rip out some flesh alive. And so some courageous individuals could be found sneaking into the stalls in the dark and biting into the cows. There are quite some stories to tell about the heroic battles that ensued. But let us continue.
In Argentina, on the famously verdant pampas where large herds of cattle roam, people tried an amicable approach. Pueblo was the name of a kind old herdsman with a gigantic straw hat the size of a hut on his head. He was of Indian blood, and Arbel was a bull he had loved since childhood. The recent tension between man and cattle depressed the old man, and he was pleased when, one day around noon, as he was relaxing on the grass after his (obviously vegetarian) lunch, Arbel the bull came up to him and mooed and looked deep into his eyes.
“Pueblo,” the bull said.
“What is it, Arbel?”
“Do you like me, Pueblo?”
The bull seemed to be expecting a compliment. The herdsman glanced at his frugal orange peel, the remains of his lunch, and said, “Not much, to be honest, Arbel. We’ve had such problems with all of you.”
“Hm, I see,” Arbel smirked, acting as though he knew nothing about it.
Pueblo: “Your meat is inedible.”
“Oh,” Arbel said, “impossible. What do you mean?”
The good fellow was pretending to be hard of hearing.
Pueblo: “None of you get tender when you’re cooked. You break our teeth!”
“Oh,” the bull mooed conceitedly, “I’m sorry to hear that. How long are you cooking it? Beef needs to be handled differently than lamb, you know.”
“We know that,” harrumphed the old herdsman in his hat hut. “You’ve all been kicking up such a fuss lately. You’re acting bull-headed. Really. If it goes on like this we’ll just get rid of you. We’ll go vegetarian.”
(Pueblo concealed the fact that astounding things were afoot among the vegetables too—the carrots, asparagus, cabbages, also the green beans. Humans were facing a total foodstuff blockade, so to speak; they had really let themselves in for it with their theory.)
The bull was stunned and held his breath. “Proletarian? Rastafarian?”
Pueblo: “Vegetarian, I said. Herbivore. Plant-eater. And we’ll get rid of you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The slaughterhouse. Cut our losses.”
“And you won’t give us any more feed either?”
“Slaughterhouse,” Pueblo repeated, who loved the bull very much but saw no other way out.
After this conversation Arbel spent a bad night. In the morning, after his life partner, Hortense, an experienced cow, had been milked (lately, to make her job easier, she had been giving very watery, diluted milk, to which she also added peppermint flavoring), Arbel went up to her in the stall and told her what he had heard from Pueblo. He mooed familiarly: “We can’t go on like this, Hortense, my love. The humans want to turn Rastafarian. They’ll slaughter us.”
“Let them turn Rastafarian. And they slaughter us anyway. If that’s all they’ve got. . . .”
Arbel: “You smell like peppermint, Hortense, my little doodle-bug, buttercup, honeybunch, babycakes. You’re brushing and flossing too much. It’ll get into your milk. Who’d want to drink that.”
“Don’t meddle in my grooming, Arbel,” she mooed back. “I love peppermint. It’s good for your breath and for the teeth.”
“But what about the children, the suckling babies?” cried the tenderhearted bull. Hortense waved her tail contemptuously and drove away some flies. So Arbel hung his head and sadly reported the failure of his efforts back to Pueblo. The herdsman had expected as much: Hortense had already produced pure buttermilk the week before, and a few days ago, milk with herring flavor. She didn’t care. How she came up with herring was a mystery, but Hortense was capricious, coquettish, and knew how to talk people into anything.
“They won’t give up their freedom,” Pueblo reported back to his boss, the cattle rancher. “Times have changed. It looks bad for us. They’ll starve us.”
The boss laughed at him and called him a fool. They put engineers and inventors to work in the recalcitrant cattle battle, building machines that could reduce meat to dust. Adding water turned it into a gluey paste. It could be swallowed dry, but then people couldn’t open their mouths once more and had to be drilled open.
The housewives revolted again: They rushed to the engineers’ laboratories, bringing the new powder with them, scattered it in front of the laboratories’ doors and in the windows, then poured water on it. The gentlemen were trapped, hoist with their lack of a petard,
And it was now impossible to go to war.
This was an emergency the likes of which humankind had not faced for thousands of years. What caused this new plague? It was the gunpowder and bullets. The powder, wherever it was and however it was encased, attracted water—greedy as a drunkard. No one could understand what had made the powder so thirsty. But so it was, and the powder’s resourcefulness at getting hold of water was truly fantastic. Presumably it drew water from the air, finding hydrogen and oxygen there and making it drinkable.
The bullets, in turn, so necessary for the well-run waging of war—well, it’s hard to believe how these harmless little round things were behaving, and the excesses their longing for freedom drove them to. The bullets, manufactured by human beings and born from their thoughts, understood at once their purpose and the intent to which they owed their existence. They liked this existence of theirs, but the purpose struck them as ludicrous. These human beings wanted to kill one another. That was quite plainly crazy. Humans had to be protected against themselves. Set straight. Here we have the first attempt of Nature, grown conscious, to surpass and improve humanity. On the occasion of a war that happened to be taking place at the time, the bullets traveled as usual for a while and then stopped, as though bored, which in fact they were, and fell to the ground. They were bored because they knew in advance exactly what would happen, where they would fly to and how fast, and everything in them balked at it. Many bullets eagerly awaited the chance to leave their barrel just so that they could show humankind what a bullet was made of. The powder, constantly damp otherwise, formed an alliance with them and did the bullets the favor of exploding by request every now and then. The heavy shells of the mortars, howitzers, and coastal artillery competed with the little shotgun bullets. Tired, or seemingly tired, they all fell to earth or into the ocean after a few seconds. Some soon started to try to fly back into their gun barrels. They only sometimes succeeded, since the gunmen immediately lowered their rifles, or the barrels kicked up. But it was easy with the heavy artillery.
Bright Magic by Alfred Doblin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes