But what a life!
Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.
And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.
And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.
And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.
And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.
He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.
After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.
And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.
“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.
“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”
“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”
“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”
“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”
“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”
“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”
“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”
“I’d rather die thinking about her.”
The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”
“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”
“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”
And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.
“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.
“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”
“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”
“Our freedom for what?”
“You know. To leave.”
“What? I can’t leave?”
“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”
“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”
“Why do you stand there then?”
“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”
The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”
“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”
The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”
“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”
The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”
The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.
“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”
“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”
“You would trust me with them?”
“Yes. You promised.”
And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.
A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!
“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.
“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”
Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.
And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.
“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.
“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”
“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”
“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.
“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”
“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”
“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.
“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”
“Of course I do,” the knight said.
And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.
The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.
Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.
After some unfortunate missteps our hero is back on track again. I mentioned in my last post that I expected audiences to be made uncomfortable by the drummer’s naivete. He has continually made mistakes that were painfully obvious to the rest of us, and he continued to do so today as he confided in the ventriloquist dummy.
But I wanted to pair those moments with a more positive take on ignorance. I expect readers will find charming his youthful wonder at the pile of discs “magically” increasing of their own accord, and also how he does not understand the meaning of dishonestly obtaining money. The fact that he is so unassuming and so innocent makes him endearing.
This whole sequence within the factory was a side detour in our hero’s journey. Detours such as this are quite common in stories, though some of them are handled better than others. With my next post I would like to examine what the function of such straying is, and how it can be utilized without having the story entirely lose its way. Come back next Monday for that, and then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with the drummer and the knight.