Tales from the Golden Goose
I’m a merchant, a man of business. I travel not because I enjoy it but because it’s necessary in my line of work. I travel to faraway lands, purchase exotic wares, bring them home, and sell them to people who can’t or won’t travel themselves. If they did travel they might discover these wares are not so rare and wonderful after all, that one man’s exotic is another man’s commonplace. But if that happened I’d be out of business, wouldn’t I?
What’s the strangest place I’ve been to in my travels, you ask? That's easy. There's an island. Better to call it The Island. It's a place where everything is exotic, but only to the people who live there. No, exotic isn’t the right word. On this island, every single thing is precious. Miraculous. Truly one of a kind.
I warn you right now: never go there.
Let me explain. This island wasn’t on my regular trade route, but I thought I’d have a look and see what sorts of opportunities it might hold for expanding my business. When I arrived I anchored my ship in the island’s one lagoon, rowed to its one beach, and followed the one road up to the one village at the foot of the island’s one mountain. Nothing unusual about that, right? After all, there must be plenty of islands in the world with only one road, village and mountain. True enough, but this island was peculiar in that there was only one of everything else, too. The island had one tree, a pine. One flower, a night-blooming cereus, I believe. One dog. One cat. One mouse. One wild pig. One bird, a very loud parrot who sat in the one tree all day, squawking the same bawdy phrase at everyone who walked by. The village itself consisted of one house, with one window, one chair, one bed. And in the house? One book, one pipe, one spoon, one shoelace….
And yet, as I discovered, there’s one thing the island has many of. People. How do they live? Well, with every single thing that you and I take for granted there’ll always be plenty of, they have to take turns. They take turns sleeping in the one bed. They take turns going for walks on the one footpath with the one dog. They take turns playing the one guitar with one string and singing the one song they all know by heart. Cooking. Chores. Playing ball. Lying on the one blade of grass and dreamily looking up at the island’s one cloud.
So this is why I said that everything on this island is exotic only to the people who live there. After all, if you’ve only got one tree, then a tree is a very special thing, a wondrous thing, an object with no parallel. Nothing to compare it to. A tree is the perfect, ideal tree. A dog is the world’s best dog. A shoelace is the ideal shoelace.
Was I tempted to put an end to this paradise of singularity? Of course. When I first got there I was sure I’d stumbled onto a merchant’s dream. How could I fail to make a fortune in no time selling these poor benighted souls more of each thing they had only one of? (They had been gaping in awe at the six buttons on my coat, for example.) Imagine how they would marvel, I thought, at the astonishing notion of more than one playing card! At the near-infinite possibility of more than one thumbtack! I hurried back to my ship and loaded everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary onto the rowboat and returned. Look at these! I announced to the villagers, tossing the contents of the boat at their feet. Nails, biscuits, potatoes, bowls, arrows, stockings, pillows. We didn’t have a lot of words in common, but I did the best I could. Many! I shouted. Many is better than one!
It was bound to fail. For one thing, the entire population’s purchasing power consisted of one tarnished copper penny. And even so, they weren’t willing to spend the only coin they’d ever had. To them, it was The Coin. Barter failed, too. They owned nothing they were willing to trade for one more anything.
Things were at an impasse. They all looked at one another with an expression I couldn’t read, and then the village elder stepped forward.
“We thank you for showing us the world of Many,” she said. “We do not need it.”
“But why?” I asked. “I don’t understand. How can one shoe be better than enough shoes for everyone’s feet at the same time?”
She couldn’t explain. Or wouldn’t. They all saw me down to my rowboat, gave me a farewell drink from the island’s one cup, and then a child came forward and presented me with a gift: the island’s one seashell, an unremarkable-looking scallop. I looked at it, and then I really looked at it.
“I can’t accept this,” I said, and handed it back. They looked sad. They must have thought I was offended by such a worthless gift. I wasn’t. Far from it. It was simply that for one moment (and for the people of the island there is only one moment) I had seen the world through their eyes. And since that day I’ve worked hard to drive what I saw out of my mind. I’ve never gone back, and I never will. Because I’m a merchant, right? A man of business. Can you imagine what would happen to trade and commerce if everyone looked at things the way those people do? Well, I can imagine it, unfortunately. Some mornings, when I’m slipping on one of my stockings, or picking up my breakfast spoon, or catching sight of a sparrow building a nest in the branches of the tree outside my dining room window, I can imagine it. And it terrifies me. I see a world that seems to be made of many, but is really only one, and in this world there is no desire for more. There is no better. There is no lack.
Ah, my throat is dry from all this talking. Where’s that barmaid? I could really use another ale.