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August 08, 2022

Progress

By Kevin Landis

They were easy enough to spot, standing in the middle the mud-hut lined street wearing three piece suits, wing-tipped shoes, and pocket watches. Chief was uncertain as to how this intrusion should be handled.

Villagers walked by pointing and looking inquisitively. Their handmade clothes and swamp reed shoes looked incredibly quaint compared with the businessmen's silk ties and pressed pants.

"They come to destroy us." Chief concluded, grumbling and pointing out the window of his hut. It was no window really, just a hole in the mud-brick wall.

"No father, a great discovery can be made here, we come to make it; and share it with every one." Ben said, thinking how hopeless this discussion was.

Chief made another low grumbling noise and glared at the men out the window.

"We have no use for your discovery, our lives are simple, they-" Chief paused, his glare shifted towards his son, "And you too, choose to live complicated."

Ben adjusted his tie, and looked down at his clipboard annoyed.

"The inhabitants of this village never get sick. Think about that. I bet you are all immune to nearly every pathogen on the planet."

Chief interrupted.

"Listen to you! 'The inhabitants', this is your family! 'This village!' You grew up here, this is where you were raised. Now you are a stranger?"

Ben closed his eyes and let out a deep breath.

This was a nightmare, try a different approach.

"Father, please, let me connect the world you have chosen with the one I have. People here die only of old age, and a rare accident, let me find out why. Maybe I can pass this gift off to the rest of the world. Let me set up a lab and study why people here live so much longer. We can make real progress."

"Progress," Chief repeated, huffing, "Is an evil and destructive force."

Ben rolled his eyes.

Chief thought a moment in silence, rubbing his wrinkled chin with his finger and thumb.

"Yes." he said finally, "If you move into the village you can study anything you like."

"Actually the mobile lab has rooming quarters." Ben said. "I can live there."

"No." His father replied, crossing his arms, "You must rejoin the village, Your friends," He pointed out the window. "They will not be allowed in the village again." He paused, "They will stay in the mobile lab."

"A deal. Great!" Be reached out his hand to shake. But inside, the idea of moving back into the village scared him.

"Gentleman," Ben said, leaving the hut and walking up to his friends, "We can begin our research."

Alex and Rod turned away from the old woman who was attempting to sell them some pottery.

"My dad said you are kicked out of the village." Ben said.

"There's a shocker," Alex said, "the old fart never did like us."

"He did agree to let you to operate out of the mobile lab, which has to be parked at the outskirts of the village." Ben said, "Which means the catch is I can't have any testing equipment in the village, I can't have any thing that represents the evils of technology. I can deliver things to you, at the gate of the village. But I can't leave."

Alex frowned. "What do you mean you can't leave?"

"Sorry, bad choice of words. My father, the chief, said: the next time I leave the village, I can never return." Ben said, a trace of sorrow in his voice.

"Ever?" Rod asked.

"Ever." Ben said.

"You aren't staying, Are you?" Alex asked.

"No, my no. As soon as my research is done I'm outta here." Ben said, looking around him.

"We can meet every other day around 8 AM and then again at 3 P.M." Ben said,

"Collect some samples on the way out."

"Samples of..." Alex asked.

"Anything that could be giving these people immunity to every illness on earth." Ben replied caustically, turning around. Rod and Alex turned to leave. The pot selling woman was still behind them, eager to make a sale.

"We'll take two," Alex said, Digging out his wallet.

When Ben turned around he was met with a very familiar face.

"Ingrid, Is that you?" Ben asked.

"Yes," Ingrid said, smiling ear to ear, "I shed tears of joy when I heard you had returned."

She ran up and gave him a warm embrace.

"Ingrid," he said, after a moment, gently pushing her away, "I'm not back. I have some research to do and then I'm going back to New York."

Ingrid looked hurt, as though he had struck her across her soft face. Her eyes started to well up with tears. Then she clenched her jaw and swallowed, blinked away her tears and forced a smile; all this in a matter of seconds.

"Well," She said, "It's nice to see you again." She took his hand. "Come, the sun is about to set, I will take you home."

Ben started walking beside her. It felt so right, like he had never left.

Members of the village were lining the street, standing in doorways, grinning and whispering.

"So, what's new?" Ben said, hoping this wouldn't be too awkward.

"The crop this year looks good, spring rains were favorable." She replied

They rounded a corner and came to a small hut with a blue curtain serving as a door. Ingrid pulled back the curtain for Ben to enter. He ducked his head and stepped through, She followed.

She lit an oil lamp, together with the fire place, it immersed the one room hut in a soft orange light.

"I wondered if you would ever return." Ingrid said, taking a seat on the floor.

Ben sat down across from her.

"I'm sorry it's been so long, five years is it?"

"Six," She replied, "And seven months."

Ben closed his eyes. He breathed in the light fruit aroma that the lamp dispelled.

"It's such a big world out there." He said, opening his eyes again.

Just then the curtain was pulled back, A short dark haired boy stood in the doorway, He stepped inside. The boy carried a bucket in each hand, one filled with water and the other with ripe, red, tomatoes.

He paused a moment to stare at Ben then turned to Ingrid.

"Martha asked that I give you this for her," He walked over and set down the buckets near the fire, "Who is he, mother?" The boy whispered in her ear as he passed.

"A scientist, he is here to do research. He will be leaving in a few days." She answered.

The boy smiled, "So you're from outside?"

"More or less." Ben replied.

"Wow! Cool!" He said, then turning to Ingrid, "Mother, Jim has invited me to spend the night in their home, may I?"

"Of course," Ingrid said, "Don't stay up too late."

He was halfway out the door before she finished.

"Benny!" She yelled.

He popped his head back through the curtain, eyebrows raised.

"Yes mother,"

"Don't forget your coat, you'll catch a cold."

Ben couldn't help but think to himself how very unlikely that was as the boy slipped a poncho over his skinny frame and ran back out the door.

"You're a mother?" Ben said.

"Yes." Ingrid replied.

"Did you remarry after I left?" Ben asked.

"No." she answered.

"What did you say his name was again?" Ben asked.

She smiled, and let out a little laugh.

"Benny."

* * *

Rod and Alex approached the gate. The entire village was surrounded by a thick hedge. A gate big enough for a horse but too small for a car was the only way in or out. They stepped through the gate, and walked toward the town.

"This is going to be bad." Rod said.

"Tell me about it," Alex replied, "The Chief is going to flip."

Ben met them at the edge of town. He looked different. His black hair that usually was combed neatly back was sticking up in all directions. He had lost quite a bit of weight too, a six pack was now clearly visible on stomach and his arms and legs were quite lean.

"What happened." Ben asked glaring at Alex.

"Well, I've got good news, bad news and then some really bad news." Alex said, turning to Rod.

"The good news is we found out why the villagers never get sick." Rod interjected.

"The bad news is," Alex paused, "You know how we went over lots of bumps on the way here?" Alex asked.

"Sure, the road is awful, how did that kill every form of life in the stream that runs through the village." Ben said, almost yelling.

Alex looked confused, "So you know?"

Ben glared, "The banks of the stream are lined with dead fish. They are sort of 'noticeable'. This will mean no meat for at least two seasons.

"The really bad news..." Rod said, "has to do with those fish."

Now Ben looked confused.

"They exist only in that stream," He paused, "only in the village area. And they are, as far as we can tell, all dead. A chemical tank on board the mobile lab burst, probably on the way here, and leaked into the stream."

"I don't think that qualifies as 'really bad news'." Ben said, "Maybe 'pretty bad news'. Have you applied the leak containment agents."

"Sure," Rod answered, "The stream is fine now, but The fish are all dead."

A thick silence followed, Rod and Alex looked at each other

"So," Ben said, "We were here two weeks and we managed to learn nothing and cause a species of fish to go...." he paused wanting to avoid the word, "Extinct."

Rod and Alex frowned.

"I don't think he gets it." Rod said, to Alex.

"They're it." Alex said, finally.

It took Ben a moment to understand.

"The fish?" Ben said, amazed.

"They contain a extremely complex nutrient, like we've never seen, they're it." Alex repeated. "The nutrient can't be replicated or syntheticlly produced."

"I think the chief was right." Rod said.

Ben turned away from Alex and Rod and sat down on the ground, heavy with guilt. About two minutes passed before any one said anything.

All that could be heard was the buzzing of the early morning desert insects. The orange sun was still low on the horizon. The few old trees that lined the village rustled in the slight breeze.

Ben stood up, his back to his friends.

Finally Alex spoke.

"I'm sorry. But you know what this means?"

Ben just stared at the sunrise, suddenly he spoke, "Go ahead and pack up, head back to the clinic, back to New York" he said, never turning around.

"How will you get back?" Rod asked.

There was a long pause as Ben stood, looking at the sunrise, his back to his friends, posture rigid.

"He isn't coming back." Alex answered, nodding.

Alex and Rod exchanged thoughtful glances.

"If you need anything," Rod paused, not knowing for sure how Ben could reach him. "Send up a smoke signal or something."

Ben let out a small laugh and smiled, he turned around and said goodbye.

Chief listened quietly as Ben told him about the fish, the chemical spill, and everything.

"Come here son," Chief said, opening a small wooden box on the floor.

Ben crossed the room and knelt down, peering into the box. It held a glass jar, wrapped in cloth, hiding it's contents.

"Before I show you what is in here," Chief said, placing the jar on the floor between them, "I want you to define progress."

"Pardon?" Ben asked.

"What is progress?" Chief asked.

Ben sighed. "Progress is a destructive and eroding force, it pillages, destroys and cripples all that is good and right."

Chief tilted his head sideways, peering at his son.

"You have repeated those words many times, We all have, do you now believe them?"

Ben nodded. "For the first time, I really mean it." Tears started to well up in his eyes. "It is too late though, The fish are dead, All the villagers will die."

"Why?" Chief asked.

Ben started to pace around the room as he explained. "Well, Those fish provided us with our natural immunities, We will now be much more prone to disease."

Chief laughed, "That is what your friends think."

Chief removed the cloth from the jar, revealing water and small circular eggs.

Article © Kevin Landis. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-01-10
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