Fri Jul 29th, 2005 at 01:54:11 PM EST
(For Alice, who asked)
Once upon a time, one hundred thousand years ago, or at least fifty, there was a village by the sea where the children and the old people did not speak, laugh, or make any expression. So the village was known as Silent By The Sea. The old people had been shocked and paralyzed into silence because they had been through a war. The children had been shocked and paralyzed into silence because they were told there was to be a war in five minutes. And the wait for the five minutes was never ending.
The children were obsessed with clocks and time-pieces. They sat on chairs under wall clocks in school, or stood below clocks on the buildings in the village square, looking up and counting the minutes and the seconds. They walked around with their wrist watches held to their ears listening to the seconds ticking, and waiting for the five minutes to be up.
The parents were busy building bomb shelters and organizing drills to be at the ready, whenever the five minutes would be up. And at night everyone watched television to see films of atomic explosions... Japan, Nevada, the Bikini Islands. Every evening there was a news show with a panel of scientists who explained that because there was enough weapons to destroy the world ten times over, and because the threat had been made that country X would destroy country Y and because the only way to prevent war was to keep producing and stockpiling weapons, the only way to create peace was to use the weapons. To measure the inevitability of the next atomic war the scientists had come up with the Doomsday Clock: a scientific measurement of the liklihood of the next Atomic War, and it was set at five minutes to midnight on a good day, and two minutes to midnight on a bad day.
There were a few storytellers who knew what the end would be like, as they had survived the testing, they had survived the dropping, they had survived the day of ashen disintegration. One man in the village had laid cables for the A Bomb testing in the Bikini Island Atolls. He was a great story-teller, and he would come in to the village every morning with a troop of dogs and young women and rose wine, and tell stories of how the cable was laid, and how the men on the Navy ship were issued sun-glasses to protect their eyes from the atomic explosion, and how when the blast went off, the huge ship was pushed on its side a mile from where it had started. But the old people knew what the man was not saying. That the most extraordinary effect of the A Bomb was..... That It Killed Sound. The old people carried this Silent secret in silence. The seagulls cried, the waves pounded, but the people said not a word.
Never was a village more in need of help than the village of Silent By The Sea. The people were suffering from clinical morbid depression. No one was inclined to work, unless it was to build bomb shelters. No one was inclined to learn, as there was no future to plan for, and studying the past was just too sad. No one was inclined to marry, as there was no point in making families. No one was inclined to travel, as it was safer to stay close to one's own shelter.
The only ones who seemed to have any sense at all were the fishermen who went out in boats at dawn, and came back at sunset. Many of them lived on their boats, or in fishing shacks with little wood stoves. Fishermen were heard to laugh, to whistle, and to argue. Even their children seemed more like normal children who played games and got called in to dinner. But the fishermen and their families did not go in to the village, or go to the churches, or attend civil defense drills. They avoided, as much as possible, sending their children to the public schools. And there was not one TV antenna to be seen on the houses of any of the fishermen's families.
Into this village one day came a travelling clown, a pantomime. He went to the village hall and put up a poster. "This afternoon at 2:00 there will be a performance by Marcel Marceau. Everyone is invited, and there will be no charge." At 2:00 pm in the village hall, out onto the stage came Marcel Marceau. And played to an audience of 20 people. The man who laid the Bikini Island cable came with his dogs and three of girlfriends. An old man and an old woman who had survived the last war came, and sat politely, sharing a sandwich laid out between them on a handkerchief. The village mayor and the custodian of the hall came, as did the chief of police. The parish priest and the village librarian came, as did the fire chief and the air warden. Two local fishermen came, and brought with them their wives, two teenaged sons, a girl of twelve and a child of three. And a child of six came too -- a fat girl with a black eyepatch, a dingy dress, and a doleful expression.
Marcel Marceau came on the stage of the community hall in Silent By The Sea and performed the stories of Bip, the clown. Bip wore a sailor suit and a floppy black brimmed hat with a flower. Bip wore dancers leotards and dancers slippers. Bip's feet were very dusty.
Marcel Marceau performed Bip goes to the races, Bip goes to the Park, Bip goes to the cinema, and Bip goes out on a blind date.
Then, Marcel Marceau left the stage and came back as someone else. He was dressed all in black, and he did not have a flower in his hat. Marcel Marceau performed a piece called "The Maker of Masks" In it a mask maker fashions out of bronze masks of every expression known to human kind. Comedy, Tragedy, Wonder, Excitement, Boredom, Rage.... On and on the Maker of Masks fashions his masks, and tests his handiwork. But then, a terrible accident happens. He tries on the mask of violent rage, and the mask gets stuck. He cannot get it off by any means, and it is fused to him, and there is no one to help him remove it.
The villagers were numbstruck by this performance. One could hear their breathing come louder and heavier..... The little three year old began to whimper and the fisherman's wife picked up the child, and turned its face away from the frightening performance. Finally... it happened. The Maker of Masks was able to remove the terrible mask from his face, and there appeared the beautiful radiant face of the one and only Marcel Marceau. The people laughed and wept and applauded. They shouted for more and more and more. Marcel Marceau left the stage and reappeared as Bip, the clown in the sailor suit and the flower in his floppy black hat.
The fat girl with the black eye patch stood up from her spot where she had been sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor. From behind her back she brought a flower that she had picked that day on the way to the performance. She walked up to the stage and gave the single wilting daisy to Marcel Marceau. And the worlds' greatest pantomime artist looked deep into the girls eyes with love and compassion and a promise of a beautiful world without fear. He bowed a deep bow to the fat girl with the black eye patch, as though she were the most important dignitary in all the world. And the little girl curtsied, and smiled and backed away.
At the next day's performance all the children of the village came, and they all sat on the floor, because all the chairs were taken by all the people of the village, and they came for the next day's performance as well. No one watched the television reports about the Doomsday Clock, and no one attended the Civil Defense drills. The parents stopped working on the bomb shelters and stockpiling food. The people started talking to each other about a possible future that did not include nuclear extinction. And they started meeting to talk and work out ways that they could build a future where weapons of war were not the currency of maintaining peace. There was the sound of laughter, debate, discussion and argument in the streets. There was whistling and singing, and children misbehaving.
The village of Silent By The Sea had woken from its nuclear nightmare. And they renamed their village Marceau By The Sea, in hopes that their favorite pantomime artist might one day return, but they waited for thirty years and still he did not come back. He was saving the world one village at a time. By the time he was 80 years old, he was only giving 200 performances a year.... Still they continued to hope that even if he could not return, that one day in his travels around the world he might see their village on a map, and see how they had named their village for him, and know how much they loved him and remembered him.
Here is a picture of Marceau By The Sea.
(Afterword: What became of the fat girl with the doleful expression, and the black eye patch? Well, she grew up into a beautiful young woman, and became a writer. I met her and fell in love with her and am still in love with her, and you would be too, if you met her. And believe it or not, her name is Alice.)