Descending the Ladder
A fight broke out behind the schoolhouse, and Druer, the teacher, had to go out to the playground and break it up. He arose with some anger from his desk, stalked through the empty crowd of students’ tables, and stamped into the coatroom at the back of the schoolhouse. His anger, however, vanished as he opened the coatroom door. He saw from the doorway that the fight was over. The two combatants now hung from the massive hands of Mr. Thornapple.
“Aren’t you supposed to be controlling these kids?” roared Mr. Thornapple. “What do we pay you a salary for? To sit at your desk while these kids turn into animals?”
Mr. Thornapple was a parent and a member of the school board and a man broad of shoulder and thick of chest and fully two meters tall. Druer, the schoolteacher, ran to him and stood before him, well aware that he was a young beanpole and a bit of a runt besides. Thornapple loosed the two scoundrels and walked away from the children. Druer trotted after him. When the two were well away from the students, Thornapple held his hands out palm to palm, fingers splayed.
“Listen,” he explained calmly. “I’m taking several of the men over to Wistholm. There’s some sort of trouble. Can’t raise them on the radio. Now don’t tell the children anything. Have a school day just like normal, but when these kids go home, you go into the village and join the others at the hall.”
Druer nodded. “Any idea what’s going on?”
“No, but it’s Wisthom. There seems to be a real handful of wrongheaded types over there, getting all sorts of funny ideas, and that’s bound to raise trouble sooner or later.”
Druer smiled, but briefly. He had to keep it short. These backwoods types might be uneducated, but they would write his first review. That initial thrust could propel him back to the cities along the coast or maybe even a government job, or it could stagnate him into a life of muddling through village after village in low-esteem positions like schoolmaster.
“Not wrongheaded, Mr. Thornapple, just different. We don’t all have to think the same.”
“Hmm,” the big man responded. “Some ways of thinking are just wrong, whatever you learned in that big-city university.”
“Well,” Druer responded, now having regained his feet, “I’m sure that you’ll find that Wistholm’s problems are no great matter. I contacted the teacher there the day before yesterday, and he mentioned no great uprising anyway.”
When Mr. Thornapple was safely away, Druer launched into a scolding, both of the fighters and those who stood in the circle to egg them on. As his prattling went on, the little mob felt the need to divert him. “Teacher!” Angelina spurted out. “We saw a metamorphic on the way to school today!”
“Oho!” Druer cried.
Little Angelina was a sharp one for her age, and she knew just what would hook him, launch him into an impromptu science lecture, make him forget about the fight. She was too young, however, to know that throughout his lecture he would be looking for a bridge to his favorite topic: the Earth Library.
his students, Druer knew its import. The arrival of the Earth Library suddenly
brought an age of reason to their barbaric ancestors, and Druer reveled in
Sometimes he felt like an emissary of Earth. Of course, he had never seen a human, except in the photographs and films of the Earth Library. He and his students were not remotely human. They were natives of the planet Har, the lone inhabited world orbiting a star many times larger as the Sun. Earth’s sun was hot, some six thousand degrees Kelvin; Har’s sun wasn’t, it surface less than four. Earth’s orbit took a year; Har’s orbit took a generation. Earth’s orbit was circular; Har’s orbit wasn’t.
During the long summer, the residents of Har reaped easy harvests; indolently drew fish from lakes, rivers, and seas; led lives basking in the sunshine. It could make one lazy. But summer didn’t last forever. Three times Mr. Druer had experienced winter. His students had not yet lived through one.
“It was a sheep-har,” Angelina continued. “Its teeth were all wrong.”
“And it wasn’t eating the grass,” another continued. “It was watching us. It acted all wrong.”
“Not wrong,” a boy named Harry corrected. “Not wrong, just different.”
Druer tosseled the boy’s hair. If he had not learned his mathematics well, Harry had at least learned the principles of Earth. Harry was one of the boys in the fight, and the dust of the playground still coated his face and hair.
“Better wash up,” Druer said. “Then you can join us inside.”
the students took their seats, Druer erased the four rivers of
“Oker doesn’t have a perfect orbit,” he began.
“Why not?” Harry asked.
“We don’t know. Star systems develop out of a disk of gasses. Some people think that Har wasn’t part of that gas disk, but came along later. So if that is correct, our world was a passerby that got caught in the star’s gravity. Other people disagree; they think that Oker formed here, but long ago the star spewed out a bunch of junk and threw our world out of its perfect-circle orbit. But whatever the reason, for part of its orbit, part of each and every orbit, we go way out here.” Druer drew his circle long. “What happens then?”
The class was stone-faced. “The planet freezes,” one of them said. “We have winter.”
“Right. What happens to the plants?”
“They put out seeds and shrivel up.” Druer folded arms, nodded. They may not have seen it yet, but they had heard about it all their lives.
“Ok, what happens to the bugs?”
“Some don’t die,” added another student. “Some of them burrow down deep and sleep it.”
“That’s right,” he said. “What about the bigger animals?”
The single word answer came: “Metamorphosis.”
Winter came every fifty-seven years and lasted almost five, Earth time. Obviously, a herbivore could not survive through the cold. Every herbivore had to metamorphose into a predator. The only food available during the long cold would be in storage or on the hoof.
“I’ve told you to observe the animals,” Druer reminded them. “Have they been storing up?”
The children nodded.
Druer addressed Angelina and the smallest ones: “The dens of the bear-har – where are they?”
“Under big rocks.”
“And the dens of the squirrel-har?”
“In the hollows of trees.”
“Yes! And those dens are stuffed with nuts and roots and dried fruits. They store up, just like we do.”
Then he addressed the class at large. This was the point in which he would bring in the Earth Library.
“These days we can endure the winter quite comfortably. Agricultural machinery and farming methods from the Earth Library enable us to produce a huge stockpile. Science from the Earth Library enables us to preserve it. We don’t have to live as our ancestors did two hundred years ago, before the Earth Library came. Back then the stored food never lasted. We could only put off the metamorphosis. Eventually, people had to follow the animals to survive. They had to change into predators. Today, the only problems that threaten us are the bear-har, and they are only a problem in remote villages like ours.”
“We wouldn’t have trouble with the bear-har,” Harry protested, “if we took the metamorphosis. We could fight `em then.”
Druer chuckled. “Well, that’s fine, but I think you’ll find few enough who will take you up on that offer. No one willingly transforms these days.”
“I think it would be exciting,” Harry said.
Druer glanced sharply to the lad – what an odd comment. Although he had lived through three long winters, he had never seen an individual embrace the metamorphosis. Far off in a city somewhere, he knew, some people needed pharmaceuticals to help control themselves, but no one willingly underwent the metamorphoses.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Before the Earth Library arrived, our people went through a bloody struggle for survival every winter. Life in the primitive was very difficult. No one embraces the metamorphosis anymore.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the metamorphosis,” Harry said, “it’s what’s natural.”
“Nature,” said Druer, quoting The African Queen, “is what we were put on Earth to overcome.”
There was a silence as the students all realized Mr. Druer’s mistake.
“We’re not on Earth,” Harry came back.
Druer launched in a new direction.
“Look,” he said, “it’s like we’re climbing a ladder from savagery to the stars. Earth gave us civilization, an end to the bloodshed.”
“Earth spilled plenty blood too,” Harry said, “and you told us that Earth sent out the Library when their civilization was failing.”
“Well,” Druer muddled, “I suppose that’s true.”
The question remained unasked: why, then, should we pay any attention to it?
Harry swept away Earth with a single sentence: “They were long ago and far away.”
Druer sighed. What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba? the teacher thought.
“We’re tired of hearing `bout Earth. Their ways aren’t our ways,” Harry said. “They’re aliens. How can Earth help us decide about the metamorphosis? There’s nothing like it on Earth.”
Druer, now less certain said, “The arctic and the deep sea were the domains of the purely carnivorous.”
“But the arctic and deep sea were that way all the time,” another student said. “There never was any metamorphoses.”
Druer suddenly felt vulnerable. He stood before them like a first-year teacher.
“The metamorphosis will make us strong,” Harry said with finality.
It’s the holiday break, Druer suddenly realized. It’s their last day before the break; that’s why the fight in the yard, all this backtalk.
He was rescued by the bell. The students arose in a Pavlovian departure, and Druer, surprised by the lateness of the hour, looked outside. It seemed the darkness coagulated abruptly around the schoolhouse.
The children crammed into the anteroom to get their coats and Druer sat wearily at his desk. He shuffled through essays without looking at them. He kicked his hard leather shoes off. His feet breathed again through the cotton of his stockings. A light wind prowled around the little building.
He heard a crash, as though ceramic were broken, and the thump of something soft thrown up against the wall. Laughter followed, laughter and youngling’s feet running away. He arose from his chair and stepped to the windows, but they scattered into the darkness of the forest.
They’ve broken something, he thought as he rose. They’ve deliberately broken something.
He stomped from his desk to the anteroom and jerked the door open violently. No one was there. The metal hooks were bare of coats. On the floor, a child’s greatcoat was spread out. Legs protruded from beneath the cloth. And blood.
Blood pooled on the wooden slats of the floor. He had stepped directly into it. It soaked through his stockings and up between his toes. Druer snatched the coat up. Angelina laid there, blinked her brown eyes once, moved her mouth to an O. She stared upward and was still.
Druer reeled drunkenly. From the left of her abdomen down under her navel, her blood-soaked dress had been ripped away. Her innards pushed outward through the wound, the intestine’s soft resilience no longer contained by the pressure of intact, inviolate skin. Naked, slippery with blood and grease, the viscera slipped smoothly out and spilled onto her dress. A thick trickle of saliva dribbled out of her lips.
Druer threw himself to his feet and out the door with a livid scream ready to leap from his mouth. It stayed there.
His stockings made bloody tracks on the wood of the steps.
Below him in the dusty, packed-earth of the playground were other tracks. Most of them were marred with blood. Each set led away on all fours. All but little Angelina had embraced the metamorphosis. In a flash, Druer knew what had happened in Wistholm, must be happening elsewhere across Har.
Their society had descended the ladder.
The walk home suddenly appeared very long, and very dark indeed.
Harry protested: “The animals do.”
“We are not animals.”
“There’s no difference.”
Druer’s answer was quick: “But there is: An animal's mind serves its body: its brain helps it find food, shelter, a mate. A person's brain does this as well, but more often, it’s the other way around: a person’s body serves its mind. Our feet take us to a movie. Our hands find the latest music on the net. With animals, it’s only the other way.”
Oker was smaller, an orange dwarf, an almost sun. It was almost large enough to heat Har, almost enough to make it suitable for life. If they had had to rely on Oker, no life would exist on their planet. Fortunately, Oker had help, for as their planet orbited Oker, Oker in her turn orbited a great, red giant called Girth. Girth was old, even for a star. Its weakening gravity barely held the star’s gasses together. Together, Oker and Girth produced enough heat to make their world a paradise.