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The Efficacious Man This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   It was a hard time in Shinar. A massive drought had devastated the land. In ten years, thousands had died; those who remained were just barely alive. Hunger was universal, a given, it was said, a just punishment for a selfish people. Foreigners looked upon the shattered people with pity; they looked upon themselves with a kind of guilty self-hatred.

Shinar had once been rich. A land, the elderly whispered, without pain or fear. It was not known how the once proud land had sunk to its current melancholy state. The young did not know; the old would not say. No one could determine the cause of the great nation's downfall, but a great many were willing to boast solutions.

Everywhere there were prophets warning against any and all possible offenses to the Gods. At night, these same prophets led raiding parties on the houses of people accused of committing transgressions, almost invariably killing them and their families. The victims' neighbors looked the other way when these raiders came to their villages. They did not speak out. They did not protest. They did not judge. When the innocent were killed, the killers were forgiven. All was forgiven to those who claimed a righteous mission.

The princes and lords cautiously embraced the prophets and their missions. Although they disapproved of the violence in the villages, they knew that the prophets wielded incredible power over the people. Most could remember the days of prosperity. They lived in constant fear that the prophets would choose them as the next targets. Some fled, or hung themselves with dignity. Others lived off of what had been salvaged from their once-great treasures, and waited for their end to come.

The prophets saw what power they had somehow acquired, and knew that it would not last forever. But they clung to it, as a criminal will to a chance-found jewel. They lived in fear, also, of that which might make the people take their beloved and ill-deserved prize away from them.

And so it continued until time immemorial; the princes fearing the prophets, the prophets fearing the people, and the people so afraid of their own shadow that they let the prophets do as they saw fit. Fear was the common denominator, the Great Equalizer. Hunger was the normal and accepted condition, accepted on the basis of the people's common and innate depravity. It was said that there was not a man throughout all the land who knew not fear, or pain, or guilt. Until one day, when a traveler came, and wiped it all away ...

f f f f f f f

On the Far West Side of Shinar, there was a small village. Located at the mouth of the lone road through the Great Forest, it had once been a center of trade. With the drought, however, the road had become unused and overgrown, taking the town with it. The people who lived there made their living from what could be found in the forest, surviving at the mercy of the seasous.

A traveler, dressed in rags, emerged from the forest one day, and entered the town. He carried a burlap satchel, and used a gnarled tree branch as a walking stick. He was tall, gaunt, and had a patrician air to him. Villagers wondered if he was a noble, wandering in self-exile, fleeing from the spector of eventual destruction.

His name was John Thornton. He had come from a town on the other side of the forest. It had been among the last to withstand the horrors of the drought, thanks to an ingenious irrigation system that Thornton had constructed. The people of Thornton's town knew of the events in the outside world. They had the knowledge and the power to prevent similar disasters in their homes. The townspeople saw little of value in the outside world, and sought no contact or trade with surrounding villages. They had the means to be self-sufficient and prosperous without bringing in the princes or the prophets. A plate can be enough for one man, but may not feed a crowd. So it was with Thornton's village.

The prophets and princes, however, learned of the town and its prosperity. The princes saw in the town a way to return wealth to the people, and the path toward freedom from the fear instilled by the mystics. The prophets also saw in the town the prospect of freedom and prosperity. They, however, had no desire for the people to be free. As long as the people lived in fear, they lived in safety. As long as the people lived to give what little they had as sacrifice for their sins, the prophets were free to collect sacrifices.

So the prophets and princes had scrambled for the chance to be the first to raid the town. They had stood together at the town limits, an army of decrepit royalty, trying to regain a power they felt entitled to by birth, and an army of corrupt shamans, trying to hold fast to a power they knew they had no right to. The first desired to steal, the other to destroy.

John Thornton had stood in the Town Square, looking at the two armies. He singlehandedly smashed the whole irrigation system to pieces, leaving nothing to be conquered, plundered, or looted. He had taken a last look at the once-proud town, and walked off into the woods.

He had taken with him only a few things - a satchel of food, a knife, the knowledge of a system that could save half the country, and a silent bitterness that left him no desire to do so. The first dwelling he came upon stood at the edge of the woods, alongside the old road. It was a hut of moderate size, built of sticks and mud and sparse brickwork, with a straw roof. It was humble in appearance, but well-kept and intact, which was more than he was compelled to say for the few houses that he could see farther along the road.

As he approached, he noticed an old man sitting in the shade of the doorway. He was brushing piles of dust back and forth with his hand. He seemed to be between health and emaciation, still somewhat retaining the bodily appearance of health, though acquiring the skeleton-faced semblance of starvation. He was stretched like a cat, staring into the air absently, hopelessly expressionless and calm.

Thornton felt nothing as he approached the man. He saw in the man's face a strange remnant of pride and confidence that made him pause. As he looked, he thought that once he may have liked this man. Thornton, however, had lost his capacity for respect, and the man, it appeared, had lost his capacity for respectability.

As Thornton passed the house, the man called out, "Don't bother, friend. There's nothing in the town anymore. Nothing, from the looks of you, that you would want to see."

Thornton stopped. He turned, and looked at the man. The man had risen, and his stance made Thornton realize that he had been wrong. He was younger than Thornton had thought, and did not appear famished. On the contrary, he seemed perfectly healthy, and his eyes carried not the vacant stare of the starving, but the weary gaze of the tired.

"And what, do you think, I would want to see?" Thornton asked.

"Achievement," the man-boy said. "Pride. There's nothing in that town anymore, nothing of value. Not even the looters come around. There's nothing left to loot. I'm telling you because you look like someone who would care, someone who would want to know."

Thornton looked into the boy's eyes. They still were weary, but underneath they were intense, almost passionate. "What," Thornton asked, "If I told you it didn't have to be that way?"

"I'd tell you," came the reply, "to keep it to yourself."

Thornton smiled.

Thornton stood on an open field, a lone man in a sea of green. He could not remember exactly when this field had turned from the desolate brown plain of two years ago to the fresh, verdant meadow it was now. All he knew, all he cared about, was that it had.

He looked down at the town. He remembered what it had looked like when he had first entered it. He wanted to remember what it looked like now, as he was leaving.

He then looked to the east. There was a sad cavalry approaching, the dual, squabbling armies he remembered from years ago. They were marching on the town ... the town he loved. He closed his eyes, and smiled sadly to himself, thinking of exactly what he was leaving.

He was leaving a town rejuvenated by the lifeblood of the irrigation system he had devised. He was leaving behind a young man, whose eyes shone with the sparkle of intelligence and hope. He was leaving behind an entire village that would fight the undeserving cavalry for what they had built, that would fight for what they owned ...

Yes, he thought, this time they were fighting, and they could win. It had been a long two years ...

John Thornton looked at the town, at the twin armies, and then down at his hands. His hands that had built so much, that could build again. He clenched his fists together, in a brief struggle with emotion. He looked at the forest. It was the look of triumph, of victory.

John Thornton unclenched his fists, took a deep breath, and began to walk. 1


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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