Martin Auer: The Strange War, Stories for Peace Education
The Bewitched Islands
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Once upon a time there were several people traveling on a steamer in the South Sea. And I don't exactly remember what happened – maybe the kettle exploded or the captain overlooked a reef or something – anyway, whatever the reason was, the ship sank. All those people were shipwrecked. And they all somehow got stranded on desert islands. But not on the same island. Each and every one of them was stranded on his or her own desert island. I don't know the reason for this either, maybe a storm whirled them around when they were floating in the water with their live vests on or clinging to some part of the ship that had come loose. As I said, this happened in the South Sea where the weather is quite warm and the desert islands are full of coconut palms and fruit trees and the sea around them is full of fish you can easily catch with a bent nail on a string. Fortunately each of them had a bent nail and a piece of string in their pocket when the ship sank, so when they got stranded they could have fish with their breadfruit and wash it down with coconut milk.
One of the people who got stranded was a king. The first thing he did when he got washed onto the shore of his desert island was to shout: "Bring me some fluffy towels, some dry clothes and some hot tea!". But nothing happened. He shouted: "Hey, I am a king! Now where are my fluffy towels?" But still nothing. After a while he realized there was no one there to bring towels or to brew tea and if he wanted to drink something it had to be coconut milk. He had to spread his clothes in the sun to let them dry and when he got hungry he had to pick some fruits. He even managed to make himself a hut of sorts and he remembered about the bent nail in his pocket and soon he learned how to fish. But after a while he got bored and he started talking to himself: "Hi, I welcome myself on this desert island!"
"Who am I, if I may ask?"
"My name is Alfred XXII."
"Pleased to meet myself! And what is my profession, if I may ask?"
"I am a king!"
"Oh a king, that must be nice!"
"Well it is, yes."
"And what is it exactly that kings do, I always wondered?"
"Well, this and that, you know. Making laws, raising taxes, starting wars, that sort of thing."
"That sounds interesting. Can I watch?"
"Oh sure, please feel free!"
"Well, let me see how I do it! Make a law, raise taxes, start a war!"
The king tried his best to start a war. But nothing happened. He tried to raise taxes. But he couldn't do it.
"At least I could try to make a law", he said to himself. "Okay, here goes: It is forbidden to leave banana peels on the ground!"
But then he asked himself: "But there is no one here to obey the law! Is it a law if no one obeys it? Well, I could obey it myself! Hey, I just decided to obey this law. Great. But what if I decide not to obey it anymore? Can anyone make me obey? Hmm, I could force myself to obey. And what if I resist? But who says I will resist? I can decide not to resist. It depends entirely on me if I resist or not! But if it depends entirely on me if I resist or obey – is it a real law then? I am afraid it isn't really a real law. Isn't this strange: I can make a hut, but I cannot make a law? What is the big difference? Making a law should be a lot easier than making a hut. I mean, you just say the words! But if I can't start a war, if I can't raise taxes and if I even can't make a real law – am I a king then? Darn it – I always thought a king is a king and that's it. But somehow it seems this is not so."
Another of the persons who got stranded was a school teacher. The first thing she did after she had dried and cleaned her clothes and made herself a nice cup of coconut milk was to build a nice little cottage for herself out of palm leaves. When she had finished the cottage and furnished it with some mats she had woven from coconut leaves she started to build a school house. She made it a bit larger than her cottage and with more mats. She even found a large smooth stone she could use as a blackboard and some soft white mussle shells she could use as chalk. When she was finished she waited until she thought it was Monday and then she went over to the school and started to teach. That is, she tried to. But it didn't work. Somehow she couldn't manage to teach.
"How very strange", she thought. "I am a teacher, this is my school, but I cannot teach. It seems it is impossible to teach if there is no one there to learn. But if I cannot teach – am I a teacher? And if I am not a teacher – is this really a school? I always thought a teacher is a teacher and a school is a school and that's it. But somehow it seems this is not so."
Another of the stranded persons was a tradeswoman. She had even managed to rescue her money and some of her merchandise from the shipwreck and bring it to the desert island. So she built herself a shop where she tried to sell her merchandise. She had socks and stockings and undershirts, needles and pins and yarns and buttons which she laid out nicely on some mats she had woven. She even made price tags of flat stones on which she wrote the numbers with mussle shells. But she could not sell a single item. "Well, maybe my merchandise is too expensive", she thought. So each day she wiped out the numbers from the price tags and replaced them with lower numbers. But she could not sell a thing.
"Maybe I should start my business by buying stuff", she thought. She tried to buy coconuts. But she could not. She tried to buy bananas or breadfruit. But without success. She tried to buy everything she saw, even palm trees, corals or pebbles. But it was impossible.
"Maybe my money was spoilt by the sea water?" she thought. But no, it looked as it always had looked.
"How very strange", she thought. "I always thought that a shop is a shop and money is money and merchandise is merchandise. But it seems this is not so. These socks are still socks, because I can put them on. And this yarn is still yarn, because I can darn the socks with it. But they are not merchandise if I cannot sell them. These pieces of paper have not changed at all. But they are not money if I cannot buy anything with them. Even the shop is not a shop and the price tags are just pebbles with numbers on them. And how can I be a tradeswoman if there is no trade?"
Should I go on telling you about the various people on the various islands? The fourth person was a policeman. He tried to enforce the law. But he failed. He built a jail. But it turned out to be just a hut. He walked about in his uniform – it was a bit wrinkled, but still a uniform – he had even managed to bring his helmet and his truncheon. But he knew he was not a policeman. He even tried to arrest himself for stealing so he could put himself in jail. But he didn't manage to steal anything. "It should be easy to steal here", he thought. "There are no locks, no fences, no watch dogs. No one will shout: 'Stop thief!'". But try as he might, he could not steal a single thing.
Well, I could go on telling you about the actress, the football trainer, the news reporter, the storyteller …
But to make a long story short, let me tell you that they were all rescued. It took some time because the group of islands where they were stranded wasn't on the map yet. So they even were allowed to decide on a name for the archipelago and they named it the Bewitched Islands. And they warned everyone to go there because, they said, if you set foot on any of these islands you would not be who you were anymore. And what could be worse than not being who you are?
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