Thursday, April 11, 2013

Peter Pan and Entitlement

Once upon a time, on an island upon a planet a few stars from ours, lived a boy named Peter Pan. Young Peter was a natural leader and had attracted a small following of younger boys, the Lost Boys, and had a penchant for the color green.

Peter and his Lost Boys spent years on that island playing and adventuring and generally behaving childishly, which was somehow seen as acceptable given that they were, in fact, children. The boys circled countless times around the beach, climbed repeatedly to the top of the mountain, found every hiding spot and secret cache, fought off villainous pirates, and occasionally kidnapped children from the real world for heartwarming adventures about the power of belief and the virtue of childhood. Then one day, after a spirited round of capture the flag, Peter Pan gathered up all the Lost Boys for an island council.

They had, he announced to general agreement, played all the games there were to play on the island. It was time for a bigger and grander adventure. They would construct a boat and sail the ocean as pirates, merchants, and explorers and have a grand old time seeing the world and singing pirate songs and becoming fantastically wealthy. The Lost Boys became excited. Children no less than adults are always thrilled by the prospect of novelty, and what novelty could be greater than exceeding the finite confines of the island.

As was their way, the proposal was approved by unanimous acclamation without too much consideration or debate. As was also their way, the boys took months to slowly accumulate wood and piece it together in between games of tag. But finally they completed a ship that was, in their minds, worthy of Blackbeard himself. They pushed it out to sea and it promptly sank. A few months later they had it all fixed up and leak proof and they pushed it out to sea and it sank again. They gave up for a while, but a year or so later in a fit of boredom Peter had them all haul the sunken wrecks back on shore and they built a better boat and this time it didn't sink. And there was much rejoicing.

In the intervening months the Boys had all fashioned for themselves the costumes of pirates and mariners and had perfected their pirate slang and nautical knots. They had composed new pirate tunes and told tales of the adventures that they were sure to have. Their mid-afternoon games of Cowboys and Indians had turned into pirates and navy. With the ship finally sea worthy, Peter called them all together for the final island council after which they slept, dreaming of the sea.

They launched their ship with the dawn, but it washed up against the beach in the rising tide. They launched again as the tide went out and before they knew it, they were waving farewell at a distant island, racing back and forth across the deck and climbing the rigging like demented monkeys. For the first time in their innocent lives they tried adult entertainments like grog, swearing, and non-sexual homoerotic male bonding. They were disappointed with the former, surprisingly excited by the latter, and largely unimpressed with swearing after the novelty wore off.

But their good fortune fled as they lost sight of their island. A storm blew in from the east, tattering sails and swamping the lower decks. The boys were no sailors, and by the end of two days of rain and wind and thunder they were huddled in the bilge, up to their knees in sweat and shit and seawater. They crawled up on deck and leaned over the railing and cleared out their new-found seasickness. They sun was out. The boys were dry soon enough. But the romantic spirit that had seized them so powerfully fled with the receding line of clouds that stretched clear across the far horizon.

The provisions, never plentiful, were exhausted in the first day of calm. Illness and emaciation began to claim the boys. The terrible storm did not claim a single life until the sun had shone clear for three days. There was no more fun to be had on the ship.

Peter called out from his cabin as the sun turned the sea red on the fourth day. The boys who could walk dragged those who could not and they assembled around the fallen mast, covering the ill with ragged strips of fallen sail. The cabin door opened above them and out came Peter, shuffling where he once skipped.

"Did you think up a new game?" Asked one intemperate boy. But a weight of silence followed those words, a pressure of disillusionment to temper, or at least silence, any other childish outburst.

If we would go forward, Peter announced, we must work to repair and man the rigging  If we wish simply to stay alive we must work to catch fish each day. If we decide simply to waste away into painless oblivion, we must still work to to battle the daily decay of the ship, lest we sink and drown.

And work they did.

For months they remained thin, but as they fished and hammered and pulled rope the thin became wiry, then ropey, all the way into a lithe, toned musculature. Faces darkened, hands hardened, faces weathered, and feet grew steady. As they fixed the ship, they became better at fixing the ship, leading them towards improvements for the ship that in turn improved their carpentry. They learned the merits of specialization and hierarchy. And, even though they had stopped singing their sailor songs, and even though they had long since stopped wearing their sailor costumes, and long since let their nautical accents fall away, they had become sailors.

And while the work never crossed over into fun, they learned that there were lesser levels of unpleasant and subtler sorts of satisfaction. And after the meals that they had purchased for sweat and pain the men began to sing again. Sometimes they sang the old songs and sometime they sang new songs, but they never sang of the old island. The old island was not fit for song or story.

Though, slowly, with their songs and stories, a new tale emerged. No one came up with the story, and if you asked every man on the ship from Captain Peter on down they would tell you that they heard it from someone else and simply passed it along un-altered and not a one of them would be lying. The story told of a land where they could finally lay down their daily burdens and rest, where food would be available to all who stuck their arm out, where they would not be hunted as pirates or castigated as foreigners.

And they sailed the seas with that tale in the back of their minds. The crew gained and lost fame and wealth, accumulating memories and scars with each hard season.

Many years later they were on the run. They had never been averse to pirate work, and had thus often found themselves fleeing the various powers of the world. The previous job had seen them shipping carved statuettes halfway around the planet and the job before that had been even more exotic and hazardous. But after so long in the salt air the men's bones began to complain. Muscles that had long since grown accustomed to the strains of nautical life healed quicker than the bones and joints beneath them, and even they were not recovering from a day's toils until perhaps the noon-time after. But while complaints would always be voiced, there were no excuses on the ship. A day ended when the day's tasks were completed and not a moment before.

The south edge of a storm carefully avoided brought them that evening in sight of land. Behind them a less careful merchant ship burned in the silhouette of the sunset, but rather than view the blood seeping into the salt water as the red sun glistened against the waves, they placed bets speculating on the nature of their next landfall.

They set anchor half a mile out of a lush green island and the captain with a small band of his best scrappers loaded onto a boat. With steady legs the captain stood at the bow. His pock-scarred men rowed in powerful, uniform strokes. The men looked backwards at the receding ship but the captain's eyes roved up and down the island as they would on a captive lady as he considered his options for exploitation. Without thinking he pulls off his prosthetic and wipes the sweat of his right wrist stump on his long red coat before fastening it back on, loosening the strap, and re-tightening in the manner of a long practiced habit.

As the small boat came to a stop on the beach the captain stepped forward in the last bit of momentum, giving his coat a flourish and unsheathing his sword in a dramatic gesture that had over the years proved useful in establishing his dominance over any shore he set foot on. That there were no visible onlookers on the beach aside from the crew put him off not even a bit. Still moving forward with the momentum of the boat, the captain strode up the beach to the light wall of vegetation that began at the high tide marker. A few cursory strokes cleared a thin tangle of vines and he came to a stop beneath a fruit tree. Hooking a low hanging specimen with his metal hand he peered at the yellowish flesh and gave a little sniff. Mostly convinced, he took a tentative bite and was rewarded with a sweet rush of sugar-water held in the porous fibers. The captain turned to the men, already pitching camp and lighting fires, and held up his arms, fruit in one hand, sword in the other. They had, he announced, finally found a place to set down their burdens.

The men on shore cheered and went to ferry the rest of the crew. By nightfall an abundance of cool, sweet fruit and fresh roasted pork fed a revelry unparalleled in the tales of the crew. The long, straight trees could be felled with a few quick strokes of an axe and even in the midst of the feasting a fairly comfortable impromptu settlement arose.

In the morning every single boat was gone. One could be seen peeking above the waves having been carried out by the tide nearly a third of the distance back to the ship. Before anyone could stop him, a crewman blessed with more stamina than sense leapt into the ocean and began to paddle out. The boat continued it's journey to the anchored ship, but the crewman's head stopped bobbing with the wave crests before he realized the cause was lost. The men still on shore watched without illusions.

They were none of them young and had not been so for longer than they had been. The ticking of death had begun to approach beneath the waves louder with every passing season. And here they were on the fabled isle of plenty. Was it, they asked themselves, so terrible a place to be stranded? The sun was barely up and they had all eaten and faced a day of sunny idleness, the first, they assumed, of many. How long, asked one cannoneer to a general chorus of guffaws, until they dreamt of the hard labor of ship life? Still they began to search for the missing boats, though they only covered a third of the island before evening came.

It was the navigator who spotted the native in the treeline as they all reclined for an evening meal. The boy, a young child, fled as he called out and vanished in the time it took to give chase. He thought nothing of it until he awoke that night in a burning shanty.

Racing out of the flames half dressed and singed he heard the pure and vibrant laughter of children. Forty young boys stood at the edge of the beach pointing at him and laughing with every fibre of their being. One stood taller than the rest and began to smack his cohorts to gain their attention. Attention gained, he called out to the navigator. "You mad, bro?" was the line delivered and the laugh track rose on cue as the boys scattered into the forest.

The crew had come awake at the noise and come alive at the flames. A few shovels of sand smothered the conflagration. Then the crew gathered, shaken loose from their brief respite and returned to their baser marauding natures. Cutlasses were unsheathed, torches were lit and pistols were loaded. The men formed into well practiced hunting parties and fanned out through the forest, slashing through impediments with bestial strength.

Six men followed the captain as he took lead entering the jungle where the firestarter had darted in. His razor sharp sword sliced through plant and air with equal ease, dancing before him almost independently. His long red coat was stained imperceptibly with blood, but aside from that it draped over his shoulders and arms in fine condition and floated through the jungle with no more blemish than it had acquired in thirty years of service. The baggy mish-mash of tunic and trousers that stood as uniform for the rest of the crew was blessed with no such fortune, snagging at every passing branch and bramble. The brambles became tiny hands slowly depriving the sailors of loot and ammo and clothing.

It was the navigator's team that found the first pathway. The captain followed his whistled bird call and the two teams met up in time for the path to branch into a proper trail. As the trail opened up, fruits of every description could be found strewn haphazardly along the ground, and out of which an orchard menagerie had sprung up. They reached the middle of the village before realizing that the twig and leaf jumbles were meant to be dwellings. Dwellings that would never stand before the slightest of storms, but which would never have to, though they appeared in disrepair just the same.

"Get off my island" cried a voice that had not yet dropped. Thirteen sailors whirled around to find themselves cut off by rag-tag children armed with twigs and rocks and appearing about as threatening as Ewoks. But the sailors had seen that movie and dropped their guard not one bit.

"And what, pray thee, makes it your island" In a just world, the captains mellifluous voice would have been recorded to play the lullabies of a million good children and the fantasies of ten million lonely women, but instead he purred to a child in green perched on a branch with a thuggish demeanor and a shit-eating grin.

"Cause it's mine, and I'm in charge."

"How awfully... convenient..." The captain let his voice fade slowly, fully aware both of the beauty of his voice and how profoundly wasted it was on this child.

"Yep, that's what it is. So get off the island. Right. Now." He raised his already loud voice into the edge of shrill to emphasize the key words.

The captain took two steps forward, sheathing his sword in a dramatic flourish. "But you see," he explained in a smooth voice that rolled through the air like fine bourbon over ice, "you stole our boats. We will need them back if you would make such demands."

"We didn't steal 'em cause we aren't stealers. We took 'em cause we found them and it's our island-" This was a theory of property that the captain was well familiar with, though he doubted that the increasingly restless crewmen behind him were as amused by the situational irony, "-but they weren't no fun, so we smashed 'em up good."

"Then we will need to learn to live together on this island."

"Nope. Is my island and -"

"Why is it your island" The captain quickly interjected. The boy burst at the interruption ,"- I'M TALKIN SHUT UP is MINE because I DESERVE it."

The captain gave a pitying look in response to the outburst, a fine tactic with grown men capable of shame and thus the captain first complete miss in the dialogue.

"So go away" said the boy in green, convinced of his victory.

"No."

"GO AWAY GO AWAY NOW" The boys began to hurl rocks but only a few were loosed before the captain, moving only his intact arm, drew a pistol and fired into the air, silencing the din.

"This is, dear boy, the fabled island of plenty. You appeared here one day ex nihilo for the sake of a story in a blog. You have not improved this land, nor struggled for it, nor taken action to deserve it. You have never worked or suffered a day in your life.

"My crew, on the other hand, has fought every day against wind and tide to stay afloat, against fish and foul to remain fed, and against the orders and vengeance of men and nations to remain free. Every night these men and I have bedded down in pain, either the pain of a hard day's labor or the pain of hunger and deprivation when that labor was less than what was demanded.

"You speak of desert, but this is the end of our journey. Even if we rebuilt our boats and sailed on we are pursued by the ticking clock of death. We will be making a home on this island," The captain stepped forward, midget children scampering out from underfoot, "and your decision is what you will do about it." He put his able hand to hip and closed the remaining distance with outstretched sword and arm.

The captain was not here to murder and pillage. Those were never the good parts of the pirate life, for all that they got romanticized. There was a part of the captain that felt bad about menacing children in a forest, but that same part knew well that a proper threat can head off more morally questionable action in the future. That part of him prayed the boy would back down.

Instead, up on the limb, the boy sneered out a "No." Twisting his shoulders and hips, the captain extended the blade through the boy's throat. He pulled sideways against the flat of the blade, pulling the impaled boy to the right and off the limb, flinging off the sword tip and against another tree trunk with a rolling thunder of snapping bone. The Ewok children scattered into the forest.

"Return to camp," ordered the captain, "Kill any you see along the way".

Back at camp the captain reported the situation and laid out the plan. They were to stay on the island. The marauders left themselves two acres of pristine jungle and cleared a firebreak. They set fire to the rest of the island. The wind blessed their venture, shifting north, keeping the smoke from their faces and spreading the inferno to the far shore. For two days the pirates patrolled behind the line of fire, shooting any attempting to flee through the blaze and throwing their doll-sized bodies back to be consumed.

When the fire died down and the island declared child free they sowed the ashland with the seeds from the pristine jungle. The island blossomed again in a month. The pirates constructed permanent settlements with the newly grown lumber, and lived the rest of their days in peace.

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