The man stood on the steppe, his hand holding the rope that he used to lead his mule, and he stared out at a sunken hill. It looked as if a giant had come along and stepped on this bulge. It was nothing like the man had ever seen before. He considered continuing straight past, not bearing the odd sight any mind. He looked around himself, but was underwhelmed by the plain’s emptiness. There were no rules out here, no laws or regulations. Time was as worthless to the man as the coins that rattled in his pocket. He decided to investigate.
It took him many hours to approach this hill, and night fell during that time so he had to make camp out on the grass. He took some supplies down from the bags that were tied to his mule, and hammered into the ground a large wooden stake that was attached to the rope that kept his ass from running off. Along with the stake he gathered together some flint, steel and wood to start up a meager flame. Upon this flame he roasted the remains of a rabbit. He ate of the small animal, washing its burned entrails down with bitter ale, and stripped off his thin clothing. He laid it all aside and slept bare upon the grass and under the stars. It was a ritual of sorts for the man, as it made him feel pure and clean under the eye of God. Not that he was a pure or clean man—he was quite the opposite—but even so, he still enjoyed the endeavor.
In the morning the man wiped the dew from his body with a towel cloth, redressed, and led his mule towards the hill. It took him several more hours to reach it. When he did, he came to the realization that it was not actually a hill, but a manmade structure. Steel beams held together with small plates of mortared shiny metal stood at tilted, curved angles so to appear as if they were rounded edges, rising convexly upwards as a hill does. There was no roof attached to these beams, and so it appeared sunken, or stepped on. On top of these enormous beams were crenellations as one might see at the top of a medieval castle. From these parapets the man could feel foreign eyes tracing his slow movements. Occasionally he also noticed some form of movement between the crenellations and he became certain that some force was glaring down upon him, waiting for his arrival.
That arrival came quickly, as he approached the beams of the artificial structure. He came close enough to the peculiar steel to touch it, and looked up. He could see no person atop the connected beams, and yet he knew that they were there. He ran his hand against the cold metal, and then knocked on it, as one might do to a neighbor’s door. Of course there was no answer, and the man became determined now to find some sort of entrance. He had not come all this way off of his path—whatever that could be—to find an impenetrable, mysterious mass of metal jutting out of the flat, grassy landscape like a manmade tumor.
He circled the metal hill, tracing his fingertips along its smooth exterior. As he walked, his mule kept stalling, smashing its hooves against the metal, and braying incessantly. The man tugged against the rope. He had been having troubles with this mule as of late. He was a spiteful creature, and enjoyed seeing his master angered.
“C’mon!” Shouted the man, pulling at the rope with both hands. “C’mon now! Let’s go!”
The mule was having none of it. It shook and kicked at the dirt and at the metal walls. Every time it did so, a dreadful ringing noise emanated outwards and could probably heard for miles. The man did not want this to happen. The last thing he needed was a roving band of bandits running after that sound, and taking his things. He had passed many small camps of these types on his travels, and he was very much afraid of their presence.
“Stop it. Hey, what’s gotten into you?”
The mule’s eyes grew huge and ungainly. They rolled in their sockets. The mule could not stop shaking and screeching. As if it was being bothered by some unseen spirit. The man turned around, wondering what the mule was looking at, and came face to face with a lowly, bowed creature. He yelped in shock, and let go of the rope. The mule kicked and ran off. The man watched it go, a sinking feeling of dread coming upon him. Everything he owned lay on the back of that animal.
“Oh my,” said the creature in front of the man. “I didn’t mean to scare off your mule. I’m terribly sorry.”
“Yes,” replied the man, examining the mild burns upon his hands as a result of the rope being pulled out of his grip. “Well, nothing to be done about it now. He is a wild, spiteful animal. He may return, he may not. He is not the first ass I have owned.”
The creature clicked his tongue. The man looked at it. It was not actually a creature, but a very folded, elderly man. His back protruded upwards, giving him a hunched look. Little grey tufts of hair sprouted from his pate. He looked almost like a baby bird, first growing its down in puffs and flourishes. He wore a simple, grey cassock and sandals. The man wondered if he was a priest of some kind.
“I am Berkhoff,” said the old man, holding out a thin hand.
“Nice to meet you,” replied the other.
“What is your name?”
“It is of no consequence.”
“No consequence? Now that’s odd.”
The man shrugged. He did not wish to have this man call him by the same words as his dead wife and children had called him by. Nobody should have that privilege.
Berkhoff shrugged, “What has brought you this way? We haven’t had a visitor in ages. In fact, the last visitor was…Samuel. He is entering his fiftieth year soon, why he was our last new comer, back in the days before we had such high walls.”
“Why is it you have them? These high walls?”
“Bandits,” said Berkhoff, his expression grim. “A great many raids have taught us to be more wary in this open plain.”
“Where in the world did you find the materials?” said the man. “I mean, there must be thousands of tons of metalwork here. I have seen no quarries, no places to smelt so much metal.”
“We had purchased the beams individually from a faraway kingdom, long since destroyed. They thought us mad to settle out here, to build up our defenses like we have. Ah, but we were the ones who have outlasted them, and so we are the greater ones. However, it came at a great cost of supplies, and though many years have passed, we are still sending scouts out constantly. Some don’t return, and we heavily mourn their loss.”
The man nodded. He was in some ways suspicious of this Berkhoff. Where had he come from? He could see no perforation in the walls of the structure, and what was the purpose of something like this? Out in the middle of nowhere, without any natural resources or barriers.
“Would you like to come in?” asked Berkhoff, as if he was inviting him into his own home. “I see that you don’t have much supplies now to go out on your own.”
Yes, after you startled my mule I am very much without supplies, thought the man. Besides himself he smiled at the old crow. He was a bit hesitant to enter the domain of a stranger, especially with the way his animal had reacted, but he didn’t have much of a choice. If he stayed out in the open and his mule never returned to him he would simply dehydrate and die. There were no rivers or lakes for miles. Either that or he would be taken by bandits, and all he had on his person was his one knife. His two pistols and rifle were in bags on the mule. In retrospect this was probably not a good place to keep them. The man cursed his own stupidity.
“I would like that very much. But, where could we enter? There is only brazen metal here, without end.”
“There is always an entrance,” said Berkhoff. “Though they are sometimes hidden.”
He led the man around the wall a little while. The man could see his mule off in the distance, it had stopped, and was probably grazing. Suddenly the two of them stopped, and Burkhoff bent down to brush aside some grass and dirt. Under this revealed a wooden hatch. The man was astounded. How could he not have noticed something like this? Berkhoff lowered himself and lifted the hatch, revealing a ladder. He then shuffled into the hole, and stepped down the rungs with some swiftness. The man was surprised with the other’s agility. For such a crumpled and wrinkled creature, he could sure move quickly.
The man descended the ladder as well, and closed the hatch behind him as Berkhoff told him to do. With the hatch-door shut, the man felt horribly enclosed. His hands were sweaty and he felt somewhat dizzy. This anxiety lasted his whole journey down the ladder—which seemed to last many minutes—until his leather shoes touched solid ground. An oil lamp hung on the wall, illuminating a narrow corridor. Berkhoff took this lamp off of the wall and held it.
“Won’t you need that for the way back?” asked the man, breathing harshly. “I mean, what if somebody returning from their journey comes down here?”
“Ah,” said Berkhoff with a smile. “I only hold this lamp for you. The rest of us have navigated these passages so many times that we can do so without the aid of our eyes. Any scout returning would not need this lamp, even though it will be returned to this spot again later on. You must understand that we are a community of habits. We have traversed every inch of our camp thousands of times over our many years.”
The man nodded. The both of their bodies spread long shadows behind them as they walked down the corridor, which was plain and seemed to be dug through the dirt and held up by wooden support beams on either side. They arrived at a small door, which both men had to duck through to enter. Upon going through this door they arrived in another underground area where they had to walk up some stairs, where they came to another door. Entering this they finally came to ground level. They were standing in between two walls that encompassed the exterior of the structure. The outer one was the wall that the man had run his hands against. This inner wall was similar to the outer but with gaps in between, so that the two men could see the sun through them.
“This is our community,” said Berkhoff. “We will walk a little ways around, and come up and over the top of our enclosure. That is what we call our walls, the enclosure, and that is where we, the Keepers of Stories, live.”
The man was silent, and simply regarded the elder with a nod. They walked around, coming upon more stairs that took them to the top of the enclosure. High up here, the man could feel a fierce wind that was nonexistent down on the grassy steppe. He put a hand above his brow and could see his mule, still grazing in the distance.
The top of the enclosure had a thick walkway, upon which many men of different ages and sizes were mounted. They gazed out at the everlasting green or talked amongst themselves. Berkhoff nodded at a fellow dark-skinned man who was chewing on a piece of meat.
“Shall I give you the full tour sir? Do you think you would consider staying here?”
“There isn’t much else to consider, to be perfectly honest.”
“I know what you mean,” said Berkhoff, leading the man down the walkway. The others up there did not pay him any mind. “With the collapse of civilization comes few options to the man who stays by his own self.”
“Collapse of civilization? I wouldn’t go that far.”
“What else would you call it then? A coincidence? All the kingdoms of the known world have fallen in the span of fifty years and you think it too far gone to say it is a collapse? What would you label it then?”
“I don’t know,” said the man. They walked on in silence for a while. Berkhoff spoke briefly to another old man, dressed similarly.
“I will take you down, into our commune. You must relinquish your weapons though. There are women, children, sickly peoples. We cannot risk it.”
The man understood and handed over his knife. If he was in any real danger he probably would have been dead by now. He had seen so many horrors in his travels that to die now seemed unlikely. Berkhoff took his knife and handed it to the other man.
“If you choose not to stay with us your weapon shall be returned.”
The two men walked on, and Berkhoff lead him down a flight of swirled stairs until they reached the sunken part of the hill. Upon reaching the base of the stairs, they came upon what appeared to the man to be a village. There were huts and large buildings set up.
“This is where we live…most of us. The Keepers of the Stories at least. We live here and have a good community. There live the elders, such as I. We live in the Library. There are about a hundred of us. We keep the Stories in check, make sure they are kept in good status, and organize the knowledge of the past. Where are you from?”
The man did not answer, that was not a question he wished to acknowledge. What did it matter where he came from? He was here now, that was all that mattered. Maybe he would be here forever. He wasn’t sure yet. They walked on.
“Here we grow crops, and over there we store the animals. We have pigs, goats, cows, etc. The younger Keepers tend to these trivialities. The women are in charge of cooking, cleaning, and organizing. If they do well at these tasks they have the opportunity to become a Keeper of the Stories. That is rare however, and hasn’t happened in a long, long time.”
“Why are you all so obsessed with these stories?” asked the man as they passed by a small farm, where two young men were hoeing a field, sweat trickling down their unclothed backs. Berkhoff chuckled.
“What else do we have anymore?”
“Life,” said the man. “A community. Things to do. What do stories matter?”
“Stories are the only things that matter anymore. Come, I shall show you what I mean.”
The man and Berkhoff walked on, past the farms, deeper into the circle of the community. They ended up by a large fence and a gate.
“Before we tread further,” said Berkhoff. “I must ask you. Do you believe in God?”
Berkhoff took a key from the pocket of his cassock and unlocked the gate. They walked through and he locked it behind them. The sound of laughing and cheerful, childish shouting rang outwards, and the man became interested. What was going on that these people should be so happy? As they walked on, they began to decline down a slope, and came to another gate. There a boy was smoking a cigarette, and offered one to the man, who gently declined.
“You takin’ him in there?” asked the boy.
“Yes,” said Berkhoff. “Let us through.”
The boy shrugged and opened the gate. Ahead of them lay a garden, surrounded by thick trees and lush bushes. Flowers of all hues and design sprawled about the ground. Insects buzzed about, and the man recognized a fallen apple. The sound of laughing grew louder.
“What is this?” asked the man.
“Eden,” said Berkhoff. “At least, that is what these people believe it to be.”
As he said this, four beings came into view. They were enormously obese, pale, with limbs the size of boulders and faces squished and indistinguishable. They spoke no language and instead grunted or laughed. They crawled rather than walked along the flowery ground. Other Keepers were in sight, watering plants or trimming bushes.
The man watched in horror as two of these corpulent beings enmeshed themselves in each other. He could not tell what genders they were. They clung to each other and smiled. A few more of them joined this small group, and they all hooted at each other like monkeys.
“W-what is this? What in the w-world?” said the man.
“This is utopia.”
“What are they?”
“The happiest human beings who ever lived.”
Indeed they seemed to be. They were all naked, enormous, and quite clean beside their exposure to nature. The man watched as one of the beings extended a neck, and using only his mouth, grabbed at a flower. It chewed at this flower and ingested it. A smile of purest pleasure spread across its face.
The man turned and approached the gate. He felt sick to his stomach.
“Explain this!” shouted the man. “What horror is this?”
“No horror at all,” said Berkhoff. “Don’t you understand? These creatures are humans, and they are happy. We have engineered these plants that they eat to be the tastiest most delectable of foods possible. They are washed constantly and kept free of medical problems. They eat as much as they like, and are free to sin in any way. Violence occurs, and is encouraged, as our medicine heals them as though the violence had never occurred. Sex is free, and unlimited. They reproduce freely. They raise themselves and have been for many years. These are the freest of all beings who ever graced this land.”
“Free?” said the man. “These animals are not free! They cannot even stand on two legs. How can they be free when you are keeping them here, like pets?”
“They do as they please, that is the definition of freedom. They have no desire to stand on two legs. They are fully mobile on four and are more comfortable for it.”
“How many of them are there?”
“1,038 at the moment. Many of the mothers are pregnant now, and will deliver soon enough. We hope to reach 1,500 by next year.”
“Why? What is the point of this?”
Berkhoff drew closer to the man, and held him by the arms, “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see it? For centuries man has fought each other to the death for freedom, for eternal joy and ignorance! They have clung to religion, to politics, to drugs and alcohol. They fear the truth that they are brought into. I asked you before if you believed in God, and you answered negatively. So to you the truth is revealed, and you are worse for it. You may feel better about it, but in reality you are hindered. You can never truly enjoy this world. You can never be happy knowing that you will come to an end and will exist no more! This will haunt you forever.
“Now consider these creatures. The Adams and Eves of the future. They believe that they will never die. They have no names, no identities, no futures. They live only in the present. When one of them dies—which happens only in the case of natural causes or unpreventable genetic diseases—it is not noticed by the others. They think the creature asleep. They have no concept of death, despair, horror, anything of the sort. To them, this is it, beauty eternal.
“Now do you understand why we keep the stories? For us, the Keepers, we understand the truth. That on this earth everything is liquid, fluid, un-static. Everything is always in flow, always changing and dying and disappearing. But in the stories, the lore created by these people, there is never change. Everything stays the same. Dante always loves Beatrice and Odysseus always defeats Penelope’s suitors. In this world there is only the moment, the present moment where one can rejoice. So we have provided that moment for the lifetime of these people. These people who know nothing of human culture or destiny or life, and yet they are happier than us.”
The man shook his head, “No! It is inhuman! It is evil.”
“It is evil to be happy? Truly, eternally happy?”
“They are not even human. They are pigs. Happy pigs!”
“I’m sorry we can’t see eye to eye on this matter. Let me take you through the operation, so that you can better understand.”
Berkhoff led the man through the forest into a large building. Keepers were filling plates with foods of all kinds.
“We grow our food for New Adams and Eves, not for ourselves. We eat only the leftovers. We clean them every day, morning and night. We inject them with a special medicine that keeps away many diseases. Of course we can’t always keep them safe. Some disease always passes through somehow and lightens the herd. That is why the numbers are still so small.”
“You don’t teach them?”
“No, now what would be the point? Knowledge only leads to curiosity, and that leads only to unhappiness. We teach them nothing. They have everything cared for, everything that they need. In this way they need nothing more. They are void of all desires and curiosities.”
“I cannot stand for this!” said the man, “Surely one or two of them have some intellect. Some ability to speak or imagine?”
“No,” said Berkhoff with a smile. “You’d be surprised how complacent we humans become in the face of all earthly pleasures. Nothing soothes us more than knowing that we are truly free.”
The man beamed with rage. He plucked up a smaller, easy to hide, knife. He had not handed over this weapon, concealing it in his shoe. He took this weapon and held it in the air.
“This is horrible and inhumane!”
“They are happy sir!” shouted Berkhoff. “Are you happy? You with your mysterious past and surely destroyed home. Do you have a family? Do you have friends? Your life is nothing but ruin and the whole world is following your lead.”
“I refuse to believe it. Mankind is better than this!”
He held the knife out, as if he were to stab Berkhoff. The Keeper of Stories held his hands up, and the other Keepers in the building were now staring at them. Some of them spoke quietly to each other, and kept glancing over nervously. The man wondered if they might be calling some kind of guards or police. He lowered his weapon and ran out of the building.
In the forest he ran into one of the creatures. It barked at him and rolled around. He jumped at it and slit its throat. Blood slicked onto the ground and onto his hands. It made choking, gargling noises as it died. The other creatures made alarmed noises, and moved in uncertain ways. The man shouted, stabbed as many of them as he could, and ran. He could now see Keepers chasing after him. He flew through this forest, stamping on flowers and bountiful nature. He came finally to a small pond, where dozens of the New Adams and Eves were laying on top of each other and drinking from its waters. A gunshot rang out, and another. Behind him, the man was being chased by Berkhoff and the other Keepers.
He dodged to the left and saw one of the creature’s heads blown off by a stray bullet. Immediately the lazy pack of creatures screeched and rolled around. They had never seen such an act. They roared and cackled and screamed. They made such noises that the man had never heard before.
He arrived at the edge of the forest, where the fence lay. He hurriedly climbed it, losing his knife in the process. Two women were drying clothes nearby, and they screamed as they watched the man go. He ignored them and flew through the village. Several men tried to tackle him, but he was too quick for them. He dodged their attempts and reached the beginnings of the enclosure. He looked everywhere for an entry point, but found none. The sounds of running steps echoed behind him. He clamored and clawed, looking for someplace to hide.
Blood squirted from his shoulder, and a mountain of pain slammed against his body. A bullet pierced his chest, and then another. He fell crumpled onto the ground. He turned to look at his murderers, and sure enough it was Berkhoff holding the gun.
“Why do you want to end their happiness,” the old Keeper said. “Are you jealous of them?”
And in some ways he was. In some ways he wished he were one of those stinking beings, rolling and frolicking without a care. But he was not. He was a lowly man in a world that had crumbled to the ground. He was not happy, and he had not been in a long, long time. Here lay the key to everything that he had not had since childhood. Innocence and pure joy.
“In the world to come, there will only be two things: happiness, and death.”
A final shot rang out, and the man was dead. Berkhoff lowered his pistol, and held it at his side. He motioned to another Keeper, “Feed him to the creatures. They won’t know the difference.”
Emilio Minichiello is an emerging literary writer and novelist. His work has been published in Bewildering Stories, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and was an honorable mention in the Dupont Essay Competition. A native New Yorker, he is attending Macaulay Honors College at Queens College as an English major.