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table of contents — stories

The Shell

The village was over the mountains and far away — indeed, it was behind the mountains that were behind the mountains and far away. Going to the nearest town with a paved road was quite an adventure, requiring a few days back then. Consequently most of the people seldom ventured out into the wider world. Now and then the government sent a gasping truck or van over the dirt road to remind the villagers about civilization and the government and all that, but it was a hit or miss thing and was not taken too seriously.

Regardless, a war came along, although the village was so disconnected from the world they didn't know which side they were supposed to be on, and most of the villagers thought it might be a good idea not to find out. Those who wanted to participate went off, and were not heard from again.

Nevertheless, due to the chances and mischances of war, a huge artillery shell or bomb fell into the village one day and landed right in the little village green, right in the middle in a large puddle or swampy part. In didn't explode (or the village would have been annihilated). It had a dull metallic sheen and looked like a very respectable piece of ordnance, but it hadn't done what such things are supposed to do. It landed on its base, so it pointed skyward, as if apologizing to whoever dropped or fired it for its failure, and possibly hoping for another chance to do better in the future.

Although there was a war on, there was no comprehensible military reason for the shell to have landed there. The little village was hardly strategic. Indeed, it wasn't even on the maps. The shell was enormous, suitable for destroying a whole city block or a factory or rail yard, and was clearly meant for greater things than wiping out a backwoods village. The whole business must have been an accident, a mistake from the point of view of the military high command, but there it was. In this it was like the villagers, who had also come to the village by accident, as far as anybody knew. There were stories, but they were rather vague and inconclusive. The people were just there. After all, everyone has to be somewhere.

At first the villagers were afraid of the Shell, quite reasonably. Some of them went and camped in the woods for a few months. Gradually, though, they drifted back to their homes. Each day that the Shell didn't go off was evidence that it wasn't going to go off the next day, either. And yet it never denied its potential, its hidden power, and no one else did, either. People began to come to look at it, although they usually didn't stay long.

After awhile the villagers sent someone to the authorities who happened to be in control of the area at the moment to complain about the bomb. Some officials came to see it. One set said that the shell was highly unauthorized and there would certainly be an investigation. They seemed to think that the villagers were somehow responsible for the situation. Later another sert, from another set of authorities, came to see it, shrugged, said that everything would arrange itself, and departed.

It was obvious that any attempt to move the Shell might cause it to detonate and should be postponed. And so it was, and continued to be. Indeed, the Shell became a kind of backwoods tourist wonder. People from neighboring villages came to see it. A few small businesses appeared in the vicinity to serve the tourists and those of the villagers who liked to hang around the tourists and the Shell.

The villagers decided to appoint a Curator to attend to the Shell. They built a decorative picket fence around it. Inside the fence the Curator arranged sod so it looked less swampy and more park-like; just outside the fence he put a path paved with smooth stones. There was even a gate in the fence and a path leading away from it, as if the Shell might one day decide to take a walk. The little park became so pleasant that people often had picnics there, and eventually on Sundays it became a practice to have a band play there — but not too loudly.

One day the Curator called the elders of the village together. They met in the little park, before the Shell. Pretty soon a crowd gathered; practically everyone was there.

The Curator gave a speech to the villagers. 'I have had a dream,' said the Curator. 'It was that one day, as we went about our business, and all was as usual and at peace, I felt an urge to say a prayer in front of the Shell, and stretched out my arms to do so.' (Here he streched out his arms appropriately so everyone could see what he was talking about.) 'Then a great crowd gathered and began to worship the Shell. Yes, they bowed down, and worshiped it, and praised its power and glory. And there was silence for about half a minute. And then, with no warning, the Shell exploded. A huge fireball erupted, and enveloped the whole village, and it killed everybody, and it went back up to heaven. It was very strange.'

After this event some people began to get the idea that it might be well to move to a neighboring valley which was fortunately untenanted at that time. They didn't all go at once; they drifted away person by person, family by family. Eventually there was no one left in the village, but people still came occasionally to visit and see the Shell. Instead of picnics and a band, there were now some benches on which the older people sat, gazed at the Shell, and discussed the events and doings of the old days, and even the long-ago times before the Shell.

Then after awhile, hardly anyone went there any more. The little park became covered with long grass and young trees. People knew about the Shell, though; it was a village legend. Maybe once or twice a year a group would make the trip from the new village to the old site and look at it. It had its influence on the new village, though; when people started fights or made trouble, or children got into mischief, someone would say, 'Be careful; you might set off the Shell! There's no further valley to move to, like in the old days. If it blows up it might get us even over here.'

Some years later, having heard about graffiti, some teenagers went with paint to apply this new art to the Shell. But they couldn't find it. It was gone, or at least no one knew where it was. Some opined that the authorities had come at last and taken it away, or that it had somehow blown up silently — after all, it had completely destroyed the village, although very quietly. Others said it was still waiting there, but hidden by the trees, biding its time; or that it had been mystically borne off by the Curator's dream of long ago and might return from the skies one day. But they didn't opine too loudly, or have big arguments about it. No, not at all.

Because, after all, you never know.