Darkness fell fast across the wide, white-specked field. Nighttime was always cause for relief there, but on New Year’s Eve, it was cause for celebration. The fading sunlight meant the fire could be lit and the party could begin in the small wooden cabin.
In front of the fire, John Woodson clinked a thimble against a rusty glass bottle that had been saved for this occasion. A hush fell over a crowd of 19 men, women, and children who had gathered to bid good riddance to a long year of sweat.
“I will pour … and then we will toast,” he announced as the others held out wooden mugs. Soon, everyone had a few splashes of moonshine in their cups, and John returned to the front of the fire.
“Here’s to our leaders,” he said, and all around him, his family, friends, and co-workers raised their moonshine. There were gulps, and then the laughter began anew.
“Where would we be without them?” John said, knowing he wasn’t heard. But somehow, despite the rumbling laughter, Henry had heard. “Darn straight,” Henry said, “we’d descend into chaos without them.”
“That’s … that’s exactly right,” John said woozily, now four sips into his moonshine. He saw his son, Ezekiel, crossing the room toward him. With a firm hand, John took ‘Zeke by the shoulder. ‘Zeke was only 11 years old, but he’d snuck a sip off a mug that someone had put down. “Son, without our leaders, we’d be miserable.”
“Oh,” Ezekiel responded, not terribly interested. “What do the leaders do for us?”
“I’m glad you asked, son,” John said, and ‘Zeke immediately regretted asking. “It’s about time we had this conversation anyway.”
A few other folks circled around John, who had a reputation, even when drunk, as a wise man.
“Look up above your head, son,” John began. “Do you see that roof? It protects us from the wind and the rain. The leaders provide it for us, and they let us live here.”
“They must be very nice people,” ‘Zeke said, to which the men and women all nodded. “What else do they do?” ‘Zeke asked.
“Another thing they do, and this comes at a great cost to the leaders, is they decide what’s fair. That’s a very difficult task, but somehow, they do it.”
“You tell him, John,” a woman said over her shoulder.
“Let’s say I have fives ears of corn, and our neighbor, Henry here, has five potatoes. Maybe I offer Henry two ears of corn in exchange for two potatoes. Well, the leaders allow us to make that trade. And all they ask for that service is one potato and one ear of corn from each of us.”
“Tell little ‘Zeke what else they do for us,” Henry chimed in.
“Well they protect us not just from the wind and the rain and from unfair trades. They protect us from each other! Physically, I mean.”
“How do they do that?” Zeke asked.
“For starters, every so often, they count us, so they know exactly how many of us there are. Also, whenever a new one of us is born, they assign that baby a number. That number stays with you for your entire life, so that the leaders can easily identify you … to make sure you’re doing ok.”
“But that’s just the basics,” Henry broke in. “Tell him about weapons and stuff.”
“Oh, that’s particularly nice of them,” John went on. “The leaders of course don’t want any of us to hurt each other, so they make it difficult for us to get clubs, knives, hammers, or even big pieces of wood. Before anyone can get something like that, they have to get permission from the leaders and go through training. You have to file paperwork to register it, and if you do that, they give you a license. That way, they know you’ll use it responsibly.”
“I think I’ve seen some of the leaders holding guns, though,” ‘Zeke put in with alacrity.
“Oh of course they have guns, and lots of them. How else could they protect us from rival leaders?”
‘Zeke thought for a moment and opened his mouth to speak but then fell silent.
“You know how you go to school every day?” John went on. “The leaders make that possible. And it’s free for you! They provide the textbooks, they provide the teachers, they provide the schoolhouses … all because they want us to be educated and to prosper.”
When the clock struck midnight, the men and women kissed and their children jumped for joy. They reveled for another hour or so, then drifted off into a drunken slumber as the embers of the fire died down.
That night, a hazy, serene grin crept over John’s face as he dreamed the strangest dream. A spirit — a bodyless breeze, almost — visited him as he slept.
“Who are you?” John asked.
“I am your intellect,” it responded. “Very deep inside of you, beneath your gut reactions to everything you’re told … beneath your fears, beneath your confusion, beneath your hatred … that’s where I reside.”
“And why have you come to see me now?” John wondered.
“I have come to ask you to examine those things you told your son. Not with your heart, not with your gut, but with your mind. The most rational, logical, A to B version of your mind.”
“Examine … examine what?”
“I want you to think very hard,” the spirit-breeze said. “What kind of relationship exists between the leaders and you?”
“They … they protect us. They feed us. They teach us. They allow us to live.”
“I’ll put it another way. What kind of relationship exists between one group of people who take potatoes and corn, and another group whose potatoes and corn are taken from them with no recourse? What kind of relationship exists between one group that can use guns and call it legitimate, and another whose weapons must be registered, counted, and licensed?”
“I … I guess I’d say that was some sort of mafia and their ‘clients,’” John said.
“What kind of relationship exists between a group of people who inspect what you do, regulate with whom you do it, indoctrinate your children … and the other group?”
“I suppose I’d call that a master-slave relationship,” John stammered.
It was then that the cowbell rang out from the leaders’ house as the first rays of the new year spread across the cotton field. The men and women in the cabins awoke from their slumber with throbbing heads and rose slowly from their mattresses of hay. John scratched at the thick callus on his lower right rib as if grasping at the last shreds of his dream. He could not remember what it was about, only that it had been a most strange dream.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and thought of the dream no more. There was work to be done on this New Year’s Day. And with the leaders around to protect him and his family, 1834 in Mississippi was going to be a good year indeed.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.