A Children’s Story

This is something I’ve had around for a long time. I’d like it to be a picture book some day. As I have little else in my head right now (other than “ouch” — what with new gardens and box cutters and a number of other stressors) I thought I might share this with you. Maybe someone out there wants to illustrate it. That would make me indescribably happy!

the parable of the volcanoes

once a small boy asked his grandmother
	“why to i have to go to school
		and learn to read?”

his grandmother thought
	stared into the air
	looking for answers
	and she began. . . 

in a faraway place and a faraway time
	to you and i
there were all kinds of animals
	some small, some huge
	some cunning, some content
	some hunters, some prey
	some numerous, some few

now in that place
	along with the animals
the earth was stretching and pulling apart 
	like a shirt that’s too small
and volcanoes popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm

so what with the usual trials of living
— hunting, being hunted, having babies, growing old —
now the animals in that place had a new problem to deal with
	hot, smelly stuff
spewing out of mountains that, heretofore, had not existed

so all the animals had to come up with 
a way to handle this new problem
each in their own way, mind you

now, the antelope,
	those millions of carefree, grazing folk
they shrugged their shoulders
	and let the hot stuff carry off as many as it would
so much the better for the survivors, thought they

now, the lions,
	those few scatterbrained, hotheaded hunters
they roared in fury
	but then, as likely as not,
		they forgot about the whole thing until next time

now, the elephants,
	the wise and powerful leaders of the savannah
now, they trumpeted each eruption
	and shook the ground with their deep bellows
so that every elephant in the world heard
	and knew to stay away

the humans,
	the small, weak newcomers to the world
at first they acted like the antelope
	but they soon noticed
		that there weren’t nearly enough humans to survive
	if hot stuff carried off six or eight dozen every few years
so then, they got mad and acted like lions
	but they soon noticed
		that not only was anger not doing any good,
	they also weren’t very good at forgetting
so then, they noticed the elephants
	the strange vibrating elephant talk
and they noticed that all the elephants always knew
	what places to avoid
so they thought
	we must be like our wise leaders, the elephants

but how?

they tried yelling
	but human talk couldn’t even carry into the next valley
they tried drums and sticks and dancing
	but the sounds just didn’t go around the world
		like elephant talk

and then one very wise old man got an idea
	rather than trying to send the message around the world
why not leave it behind at the source

he said to his other human animals
	if i make a mark, like so ¬—
		and he put a large X on the ground —
	that means stay away from there

and, indeed, he’d chosen a mark 
that looked like two scary spears
	so they all knew that meant bad things will happen

and for a long time this worked just fine. . . 

but after that long time
	the scary spears
		just didn’t seem like enough information
some human animals began to wonder
	if these particular scary spears
		meant the instant death of hot spirits
			tearing down the mountain
	or did they mean
		the slow, steady hot lizards
	that may cover a village
		but certainly couldn’t take you by surprise

so little by little
	they began making more marks
	different marks for different kinds of danger
and little by little
	they began using their marks for other things, too,
	not just avoiding volcanoes
and it was beginning to get confusing
	all those new marks

so after another long time
	of everybody inventing new marks
	and getting confused
the human animals called a huge meeting
	everybody in one place
	away from the volcanoes, mind you,
to talk about the marks

they put together all the marks
	anybody had ever seen
	and some that most hadn’t 
to decide once and for all what meant what

well, that meeting lasted for weeks
	they decided what every mark represented
		some were thrown out
		some were made more clear
		some marks were invented right on the spot
but by the end
	every important thing in their lives
		and most not-so-important ones
	had its very own mark
and all the human animals knew 
	what all the marks meant

so, what began with a simple wish
	to avoid those mushroom volcanoes
led to writing
	and to reading,
		and to school

and through time, my dear,
	there have been many changes to those marks
	because humans kept wanting more of them
		to describe different things
but the idea is still the same

we, human animals, write
make little marks
to tell other human animals things
and most everything we write is not very different
	from that X in the dirt
	that served as a volcano warning
all those many years ago

so that’s why you have to learn to read. . .

she concluded

the boy eyed her doubtfully and said
	“so i have to learn to read to avoid volcanoes?”

and the old woman laughed and said
	“well, if volcanoes were your only problem
		you’d have a lot less to learn. . . 
	but, yes son, you have to learn to read
		to avoid volcanoes,
			whatever kind they may be”

©Elizabeth Anker, 2021