Monday, August 22, 2011

Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920,


Spoiler Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and events.

Here are three short tales by Ray Bradbury, whose birthday we celebrate today. I had read only one of them before, “The Crowd,” and possibly I might even have seen a TV dramatization of it. When I think of the story, an image comes to mind. The camera, if that’s what it is, is on the ground facing up and one can see faces all around, just as if one were lying on the ground with a crowd gathered about. The other two stories are new to me, but also enjoyable, if one can take a touch of horror along with some greed.
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“The Coffin”
Charles Braling was old. His brother Richard was younger. Charles was rich, and almost everything he did made him richer. Richard was poor, except for what Charles gave him. Everything Richard did had been a failure. Charles was dying; he had perhaps only several weeks to live. That was why he was in such a hurry to complete his latest invention—“The Braling Economy Casket.” Richard wasn’t dying, which meant there were two reasons for him to be happy: one was that he wasn’t dying and the other was that Charles was. In spite of their many differences, the two brothers did share something—a mutual hatred.
Richard, along with greed, possessed one more characteristic: curiosity. Curiosity may not always be fatal, but it’s certainly much deadlier when paired off with greed. That was why, when Charles died, he ignored Charles’ last wish, to be buried in his special casket, which he had finished minutes before he died. Richard wanted to find out just what this coffin could do. Perhaps it might be marketable. It was his brother’s idea after all, and those had been remarkably profitable. So, he called the funeral parlor, and gave his orders: “Ordinary casket . . . No funeral service. Put him in a pine coffin. He would have preferred it that way—simple. Good-by.”
Now, Richard thought, to find out about the coffin. It was approximately twelve feet long, with a central open section about six feet in length. It had two covered sections, one at the head and one at the foot, each about three feet in length. The casket lid was transparent at the head position. The casket was also extraordinarily wide, perhaps three feet wide on each side of the central chamber for the body. Richard could see no openings or hatches or buttons or any way of getting inside those compartments, at least from the outside. So, he decided to get in the casket and test it. There were ventilating holes around the sides, and just to be safe, he told the gardener to come upstairs in about fifteen minutes to make sure all was well.
So, he crawled inside and looked around. He could see nothing that would give him access to the compartments. Suddenly the lid slammed shut and locked. He panicked at first, but then relaxed. There was enough air in the casket, along with the ventilating holes, and the gardener would soon be along. He might as well relax.
Then . . .
“The music began to play.
It seemed to come from somewhere inside the head of the coffin. It was green music. Organ music, very slow and melancholy, typical of Gothic arches and long black tapers. It smelled of earth and whispers. It echoed high between stone walls. It was so sad that one almost cried listening to it. It was music of potted plants and crimson and blue stained-glass windows. It was late sun at twilight and a cold wind blowing. It was a dawn with only fog and a faraway fog horn moaning.
. . . . .
The sermon began.
The organ music subsided and a gentle voice said:
‘We are gathered together, those who loved and those who knew the deceased, to give him our homage and our due—‘
‘Charlie, bless you, that’s your voice!’ Richard was delighted. ‘A mechanical funeral, by God. Organ music and lecture. And Charlie giving his own oration for himself!’
The voice continued:
“We who knew and loved him are grieved at the passing of Richard Braling.”
Richard thought he had misheard the voice. That should have been Charles Braling.
And then Richard found out just how complete the funerary arrangements were that Charles had built into the Braling Economy Casket.
I felt a bit sorry for Richard, for after all, he hadn’t really done anything that wrong. But, if he had followed Charles’s wishes, and if he hadn't been so greedy and curious, none of this would have happened.
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“The Crowd”
I had read this story long ago and, as I mentioned earlier, may even have seen a dramatized version of it. It’s a quiet little story based on observable facts, something we have all seen, but, as far as I know, only Ray Bradbury wondered about it and gave us this little gem. We’ve all seen this: an accident happens and a crowd forms. Where did all these people come from? Who were they? The sidewalks and entrances may have been empty before, but let an accident happen and a crowd forms.
Mr. Spallner had been in an accident—lots of noise, tumbling motions, and then silence.
‘The crowd came running. Faintly, where he lay, he heard them running. He could tell their ages and their sizes by the sound of their numerous feet over the summer grass and on the lined pavement, and over the asphalt street; and picking through cluttered bricks to where his car hung half into the night sky, still spinning its wheels with a senseless centrifuge.
. . . .
Where the crowd came from he didn’t know. He struggled to remain aware and then the crowd faces hemmed in upon him, hung over like the large glowing leaves of down bent trees. There were a ring of shifting, compressing changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face, making his face into a moon-dial, where the moon cast a shadow from his nose out upon his cheek to tell the time of breathing or not breathing any more ever.”

Several weeks later, Spallner was released from the hospital and eventually returns to his office. While talking with a colleague, he hears the sound of a crash from the street below.
“Spallner walked to the window. He was very cold and as he stood there, he looked at his watch, at the small minute hand. One two three four five seconds – people running—eight nine ten eleven twelve – from all over, people came running –fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen seconds – more people, more cars, more horns blowing. Curiously distant, Spallner looked upon the scene as an explosion in reverse, the fragments of the detonation sucked back to the point of implosion. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one seconds and the crowd was there, Spallner made a gesture down at them, wordless.
The crowd had gathered so fast.”

Spallner becomes obsessed with the crowd. He searches old newspaper for pictures of accidents and begins to see that some of the faces in the photographs of the crowds went back decades, seemingly without aging. He detects patterns of appearances of faces in the crowds. Some faces appeared in only one photograph, but others showed again and again. And some of the accident victims died because somebody in the crowd had moved them before an ambulance arrived on the scene. Was that deliberate, Spallner wondered?
Spallner gathers his evidence and decides to take it to the police. Perhaps they might make something of it. But, he never makes to the police station.
“He was rather shocked, but not surprised, somehow, when the truck came rolling out of an alley straight at him. He was just congratulating himself on his keen sense of observation and talking out what he would say to the police in his mind, when the truck smashed into his car.
. . . . .
The crowd was there. . .
He hadn’t felt much at the impact, his spine was hurt. He didn’t dare move. . .
Someone said, ‘Give me a hand. We’ll roll him over and lift him into a more comfortable position. . .”

Lucky Spallner. Thanks to his curiosity and his keen sense of observation, he is now going to get the answers to all his questions about The Crowd.

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The Scythe
This is a horror story, about a man who has just hit bottom, and thinks that it can’t get worse. He should have talked to my grandmother, a cheerful soul; one of her favorite sayings was “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.” I guess that was meant to cheer us up, but somehow it never quite succeeded.
Drew Erickson was out of work, out of money, and out of gas. That he was also lost didn’t make much difference since he couldn’t go anywhere even if he did know where to go. With him were his wife Molly and their two children.
Off in the distance he could see a golden wheat field, ripe enough for the scythe. And, beyond that, a small farmhouse. Hoping for help, trading work for food and perhaps shelter, he went to the farmhouse. He got no answer when he knocked and called, so he went in. He found the occupant upstairs in the bedroom.
“The paper lay open on the pillow beside the old man’s head. It was meant to be read. Maybe a request for burial, or to call a relative. Drew scowled over the words, moving his pale, dry lips.
To him who stands beside me at my death bed:
Being of sound mind, and alone in the world as it has been decreed, I, John Buhr, do give and bequeath this farm, with all pertaining to it, to the man who is to come. Whatever his name or origin shall be, it will not matter. The farm is his, and the wheat; the scythe, and the task ordained thereto. Let him take them freely, and without question – and remember that I, John Buhr, am only the giver, not the ordainer. To which I set my hand and seal this third day of April, 1938.
[Signed] John Buhr, Kyrie eleison!

A scythe leaned on the wall beside the bed. “Words were scratched on the blade: Who wields me – wields the world!”
Their luck had changed: food in the refrigerator, shelter, a bull and several cows, and a farm that was theirs.
Several days later, Drew decides to go to work. The wheat needs cutting. He went out with the scythe. At the end of the day, he was puzzled. The golden wheat he cut down began immediately to rot and disintegrate as he watched it. Secondly, it was a huge field but only a small portion was ripe for cutting, a portion that he could do in one day. On the second day, he could see green shoots already springing up where he had cut down the ripe stalks, and another portion of wheat that had been green yesterday was now ripe for cutting.
Eventually Drew tries to stop cutting the wheat for it rotted away too quickly to be harvested. Cutting the wheat, therefore, was a waste of time. But, when he tried to stop, he felt some force working on him, forcing him eventually to go out there.
While cutting a ripe section of wheat one day, he swore he could hear his mother’s voice cry out as he cut a stalk. He became convinced that he had killed his mother. And the rest of the wheat? Were they also people. He sent off a telegram and got word several days later that his mother had died, approximately at the same time he had cut that stalk.
Drew now understood the meaning of the words on the scythe; he was Death. The true horror of what he was doing struck home when he encountered stalks that he knew were his wife Molly and his two children.
Spoiler Warning: I reveal the ending of the story at this point.

“And then, sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to the left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night…
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he can no longer cares what he does to the world.
. . . . .
“Once in awhile during the long years a jalopy gets off the main highway, pulls up steaming in front of the charred ruin of a little white house at the end of the dirt road, to ask instructions from the farmer they see just beyond, the one who works insanely, wildly, without ever stopping, night and day, in the endless fields of wheat.
But they got no help and no answer. The farmer in the field is too busy, even after all these year; too busy slashing and chopping the green wheat instead of the ripe.
And Drew Erickson moves on with his scythe, with the light of a blind suns and a look of white fire in his never-sleeping eyes, on and on and on . . . ”

I wonder: is it more comforting, after reading the daily headlines and studying the history of the human race, to think that what we do is caused by madmen, rather than by sane, ordinary people.
A thought just occurred to me. Could Drew be symbolic of weapons makers and inventors or creators of weapons--possibly nuclear weapons?

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