Once upon a time, there was a mountain village far, far away from every place else. It was a lovely little village; the town square boasted a large white Victorian bandstand where crowds often gathered late into warm evenings to hear barbershop quartets or the high school band. There was a beautiful park with picnic tables centered on an ancient, spreading oak and twisting maple lined roads that slid smoothly past rows of beautiful homes from neat brick cottages to frilly Victorians. When the snows came and the rosy cheeked children flocked to the hillsides with their sleds and bright colored hats and mittens, the village looked like it had been plucked from a Christmas card and brought to life.
There was a downside to life in the village though. In the winter, the snow and ice on the mountains surrounding the tiny town blocked the roads so inhabitants who chose not to leave before the snows began were stuck there for most of the winter. In the summer mudslides on the mountain had a similar effect. The villagers had to carefully consider their needs for the year and order far more food and other goods than they really needed just to be on the safe side. This made them a very practical people. The very rare newcomer to the village noticed a certain lack of imagination and a great deal of concern with working to buy goods, having them delivered, and storing them. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking the whole town was a sort of open air asylum for hoarders. For instance, old Dr. Benjamin H. Johnston had suffered brain damage when he was hit by a pallet of canned beans that he had unwisely stacked atop several pallets of paper towels and toilet paper. The whole mountain of canned goods and paper goods had finally become weak and one winter morning when he went into his basement to look for another can of tuna for his cats, the paper towels gave way and the tower of canned beans toppled over on his head. After that, he became very confused and tried numerous times to feed the beans to the cats. Eventually, they ate him. However, that’s neither here nor there for our story.
No…this particular tale revolves around someone entirely different, a villager named Geoffrey. Geoffrey was an attorney in the village, actually the attorney in the village. As you might expect, he had quite a roaring business. After all, though the village was small and of a bucolic and peaceful appearance, these people were completely stuck with each other for at least nine months of the year. As such, they got into the most terrible legal disputes, partly out of boredom. Of course, this was good for Geoffrey. He was quite the richest man in town. His stack of groceries and other goods was three times higher than anyone else’s. One late winter morning he was working very hard to make it four times higher; in the interest of this goal, he was preparing a spreadsheet to predict which of his neighbors’ petty disputes might be fanned into legal flame when, according to his friends and neighbors (well mostly neighbors, as the town’s only attorney he didn’t have many friends) his brain must have broken. He was right in the middle of thinking of ways he could encourage the Smiths to enter a long and acrimonious divorce when he suddenly lost his taste for the law. He got up from his office chair and never returned.
At first, this brain brokenness revealed itself in mere agitation. He could barely sit for a few moments before he had to stand. He could stand for only a few seconds before he needed to move into another room. He could barely stay in that room for a few seconds before he needed to move to another room. He could barely stay focused long enough to remember to go to the toilet. (And sometimes he couldn’t).
His neighbors noticed him muttering as he wandered aimlessly around the village, sitting on benches, then standing, then running, occasionally asking directions to the nearest public toilets. As his troubles grew deeper and more apparent, the villagers often pointed out the public restrooms before he could even ask. He was saying things like, “Four is not as much as five. Is five enough? Could it be more? What is the last number? Why infinity? Then I can never have enough.”
The concept of infinity was a constant in his muttering, a taunting goal, an abstraction Geoffrey seemed to think existed only to make him feel small and inadequate. Sometimes he would ask directions to infinity, which brought him nothing but troubled looks and explanations that infinity wasn’t a place. One day he made it a point to ask every person in town to tell him the last number of all. The one that made infinity a moot point. That was the number he was after. He did not like feeling small. Feeling small made him feel afraid. Feeling afraid made him feel angry, although he did not know why.
When asked for the last number, most of the townspeople merely answered contemptuously that there was no such thing. Only May Anna Clark, a sturdy three year old in pink overalls, made the attempt.
“Eighty-ten,” she said decisively, as that was the only number that came to mind and it seemed large enough to be impressive.
After this he wandered around town muttering “Eighty-ten” to himself for some time, shaking his head.
Finally he came to a conclusion. “It can’t be stopped,” he would say. “Infinity can’t be stopped.”
After that his question to the villagers was, “Aren’t you afraid of infinity? It can’t be stopped and no one can achieve it.”
He received various answers. May Anna Clark simply stared at him and continued to lick her red swirled sucker as it dripped down her chin; she rightly guessed that a number wouldn’t answer this question.
Dr. Benjamin Johnston (while he was still extant), replied, “No. I’m afraid of cats.”
Ellen Smith, who was very much in love with her husband and who did not want an acrimonious divorce, said, “No. But I’m afraid that Charles might leave me someday.”
Martin Elliot said, “I’m afraid we’re never going to have another attorney and I would really like to sue the Marcotts because their dog keeps pooping in my yard.”
All in all, none of the answers were satisfactory. But he kept doggedly going from house to house and to the park and to the market to ask everyone he could find. He walked through the white picket fence with the red roses at the Anderson’s historic home with the broad porches and frightened the maid with the question. He found the Carpenters behind their red brick cottage on the patio, enjoying drinks, but they were about halfway to infinity themselves and found his question immoderately hilarious. He accosted Mr. Jones at the old fashioned two pump gas station where you still had to walk in to pay, but Mr. Jones just laughed and told him he was crazy. He was even less successful questioning two young couples entwined under the giant oak at the park, and when he interrupted a pick up soccer game, the teenagers actually threw the ball at his head.
He didn’t get an answer that helped him at all until he came to question the last person in town. It was the English instructor Ms. Schmidt. She was an outsider, young and opinionated, who had recently graduated the university and she was perhaps used to looking at questions more academically than the rest of the villagers, especially since she had gone through two years of graduate school and was now working on her thesis. Emily Schmidt had begun to suspect that living in this village probably would make a person crazy eventually, and she really couldn’t blame Geoffrey for finally going round the twist. In fact, in a way it seemed the most logical response to this place. She liked him better as a lunatic in fact, except for the occasional strong smell of urine; otherwise she might have begun to find him quite attractive with his strange questions and deep brown eyes. (As for Geoffrey, he was probably predisposed to listen to Ms. Emily Schmidt. He had been quite attracted to her pale freckled skin and her rather serious tortoise shell glasses that hid bright green eyes. He had only avoided asking her out by reminding himself how expensive a divorce could be. Then he had had a nightmare that involved her coming with a dump truck to take half of his stack of stored goods.)
What Emily Schmidt said was this, “Infinity is a silly thing to be worried about Geoffrey. It’s too big and you can’t get your mind wrapped around it. You can’t do anything about it. You need to find something more concrete to worry about.”
And suddenly he realized….she was right. Infinity was far too large and heavy. Infinity was an elephant and his worry was ant-sized in comparison. He suddenly pictured himself as an ant with a tiny spear desperately poking at the toe of the behemoth. No matter how crushingly heavy the weight of his fear and anger felt to him, it would never affect infinity. No, Emily was right. It would never do. He needed something to embody his fears. Something to blame. Something concrete and REAL and relatively small, a skin to wrap around his dreadful angst and anger and fear of inadequacy.
So from that day forth, Geoffrey was afraid of…giraffes. No one knew exactly how it happened. As a matter of fact, some of the villagers who had spent their whole lives there weren’t too sure what a giraffe was until Geoffrey started going on about them. Of course, they had seen them in school books and library books, but giraffes had never really registered in their minds. They were a practical and incurious people and honestly didn’t have any need to know about such exotic and unlikely creatures. Almost all of the villagers were of pretty much the same mind. Teach the practical. Teach what you know will be encountered. Giraffes were an unnecessary bit of fluff and fantasy. No real point to them.
When Geoffrey transferred his fear from Infinity to Giraffes it was spring in the village. The Sun was beginning to peek out from behind the mountains earlier and earlier. The air had quit slapping the villagers in the cheeks every time they walked out the door and caressed and cajoled them instead, like a psychotic and changeable lover. Every moment of warmth and light needed to be used, gardens dug, possessions aired out, streets and roofs mended. So when Geoffrey began his speeches in the public square, there were almost always people available to hear him.
He spoke about the great and terrible size of the giraffe. He preached about the aggression of the male giraffe during mating season. He had large poster displays of giraffes. On some of them he had obviously painted devil horns and mustaches. He had pictures, which he had obviously drawn himself, depicting giraffes committing bank robberies and picking pockets. He once gave a long speech on the terrible music taste of giraffes – he referenced heavy metal and had three very under-ripe tomatoes thrown at him by several of the soccer players he had previously inconvenienced. He returned the next day with his black eye and this time he had some very graphic although badly drawn pictures of a gang of giraffes murdering a chimpanzee. His pleas were very heartfelt, though obviously insane. Emily felt more and more sorry for him every day. And then a funny thing happened.
A few people in the village began to display a slight prejudice against giraffes. The town librarian was taken to task for displaying a children’s book that pictured a giraffe for the letter “G.” Actually, this always rather annoyed Emily too, but only because she felt it was too confusing to represent the soft “g” sound instead of the hard “g” of goat. Emily had been sitting at the library preparing for an upcoming class simply because she loved the smell of the old building and the way the light poured in through the tall leaded windows onto her book when a frazzled looking woman came in dragging her four year old child by the hand. The child was gripping a book with The Animal ABCs printed in a bright cartoony font on the front cover.
“But I like it, Mommy,” the child was saying.
The woman looked a little disconcerted and handed the book to the librarian. She looked around to see if anyone was listening and then said, in an almost apologetic tone, “You see, it has a giraffe in it. So if we could just swap it out. Please.”
The librarian looked confused. “A giraffe? But I don’t exactly see the problem?”
The mother looked around again and bit her lip. “Well, of course, I read this book when I was young, but that man keeps talking about them doesn’t he? And he,” she paused to jerk her head at the child, “Well, he had a nightmare about a giraffe just the other day, didn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said the librarian, perhaps feeling somewhat accused. “I mean, you can bring back a book and get another one any time. You don’t actually have to ask, you know.”
“Well,” said the harassed mother, “I’m telling you this because…well, because, you know he might not be the only one. I’m just not sure that children should be reading this book. You know….maybe not right now.” She clung fiercely to the little boy’s hand as though she were protecting him, though he was squirming so that Emily wondered how his arm remained in its socket.
“I would think,” said the librarian – he was looking increasingly exasperated, “that he might benefit from seeing a friendly and happy giraffe. That seems like the best cure for his nightmares.”
“Oh no,” said the offended mother. “I really just don’t think…He’s four, you know. Please just take it back.”
“Doesn’t he want to choose another?” asked the librarian.
“I just…” she stopped as the child nearly twisted out of her arm. “I just don’t know. Maybe later.” And she scurried out.
The only good that came out of the encounter was that Emily made friends with Eddie, the village librarian. Because from that day on, things slowly started to deteriorate and they needed each other.
Several mothers complained. They knew, of course they knew, that giraffes weren’t so bad, it was just that right now the kids were afraid of them. Some of their little ones had been having nightmares. They knew that giraffes didn’t commit bank robberies or murder chimpanzees. Of course not. But the aggression was real. When the internet was working they had looked up “male giraffe aggression.” Maybe giraffes were more dangerous than they thought. Some of the mothers took it upon themselves to remove any book from the library that had any information on giraffes. Just to prevent nightmares of course. And, of course, Geoffrey was an educated man. He had a law degree for goodness sakes. There had to be some truth to whatever he might say.
And some of the villagers, particularly those who had been the most prone to suing their neighbors after a long boring winter, began to agitate against giraffes as well. It seemed to be a sort of outlet for some of the simmering unrest created by the feeling of entrapment, the same sort of outlet that suing each other had been. And, of course, Geoffrey was really no longer capable of aiding them with their former pastime. The idea that giraffes were evil caught some sort of swirling current in this village of oddly practical people. It began to spread like a disease. The preacher at the old village church used the giraffe as a metaphor for wickedness. When confronted by Emily about this, he replied that he didn’t believe all of that nonsense himself, but it was a handy tool since his parishioners did believe it. School teachers began to tell their students to behave like humans and not giraffes.
In vain, Emily and Eddie protested that giraffes were grazing animals. They were actually quite peaceful. And they were not a threat to the village at all. No giraffes lived anywhere near the village. Emily tried to teach a lesson on giraffes but was reported to the principal who told her in no uncertain terms that his job depended on the parents trust and buy-in. (Emily almost punched him in the nose when he said buy-in. She felt ethically compelled to punch people who said buy-in and synergy and used acronyms on a regular basis. She felt this punching compulsion around the principal recurrently.) He noted that, of course, he didn’t believe any of that nonsense at all, but who was he to question the parents of his students. And what was the harm? There were no giraffes here in the village.
The whole thing came to a head one day when she was jogging in the park with Eddie. One of her students came running up to them and said simply, “You’ve got to see this.” They followed her to the town square, dread weighing so deeply on Emily that she was silent until she saw the terrible sight. Almost half the population of the town had turned out for an anti-giraffe protest. Speaker after speaker took the stage to spout terrible and egregiously false facts about giraffes. Oddly, they didn’t all agree with one another, but most seemed to agree that giraffes were an awful and growing problem. One speaker claimed that they were an alien race who had come and waited a hundred thousand years grazing but that soon they would throw off their disguises and take over the earth. Most people disagreed with this premise, but Emily could hear them grunting things like, “Well, of course, the fact that he’s crazy doesn’t prove that giraffes are not disagreeable.”
One man claimed that it had been proven that giraffes consumed so much vegetation including gardens and fields of crops that children who lived in countries where giraffes were found suffered and died from starvation. This was less outrageous than the previous claim and no one had proof to the contrary so the majority of the crowd seemed to agree that it was probably true. Someone else spoke about a rumor she had heard that the government would be releasing wild giraffes into the mountains around the village. When one man was heard to question the ability of giraffes to live in the mountains, the woman told him that she had heard the government had bred certain giraffes for this special purpose.
After about an hour of this madness, Emily felt a tug on her sweater. It was Eddie. He made a brief gesture toward some of the crowd at the back of the square close to where he and Emily were standing. Three older men stood staring at them, arms crossed, legs squarely apart, frowning. Apparently Emily and Eddie had made their status as doubters too well known. “Time to go,” Eddie whispered.
Emily and Eddie made the rounds and talked to the half of the townspeople who had chosen not to attend the protest. The Carpenters were three sheets to the wind as always and they found the whole situation funny. The Smiths said quite frankly that they were afraid to say anything and they couldn’t see why they should risk angering their neighbors over something that wasn’t a problem in the first place. The whole thing was a fantasy and it wouldn’t affect the town in the long run. Emily tried to note that since this particular fantasy was creating an atmosphere of fear and anger perhaps it was important, but the Smiths assured her that they figured the whole thing would blow over by fall. And so it went. The people who did not attend the anti-giraffe protest refused to consider it a problem, or they were afraid to consider it a problem, or they simply didn’t care because it didn’t really affect anyone.
As a last resort, they tried talking to Geoffrey. They found him sitting alone on a park bench, smiling and singing to himself. Oddly, he seemed far less agitated by the situation than the rest of the townspeople.
Emily tried first, “Geoffrey, please tell me you know all this stuff about giraffes is not true.”
Geoffrey simply smiled at her. “What is truth Emily? The people have fears. They have anger. They need somewhere to place it. Why not a creature that lives far from here, a creature they need never deal with at all. Why not take that angst and burn it up in public anger and then send it far away from us. We will all be better for it.”
Eddie recoiled and then said, “No one has ever been better for believing a lie, Geoffrey.”
Geoffrey smiled peacefully, “It isn’t a lie as such, you see. It’s an allegory of sorts. I am calmer now because I have taken all the badness and sadness and anger out of myself and given it to a creature far, far away where I will never have to deal with it again. Don’t you see what peace I have? Why can’t they all have that same peace? Why will you deny them peace?”
“That’s not peace!” said Emily. “Geoffrey they are not at peace. They are angry and they are becoming angrier at each other. You can’t gain peace by believing something that’s…that isn’t true because it will only lead to endless arguments. They are starting to fight with each other and to split into factions. You have to tell them that you made all of that stuff up.”
“No,” Geoffrey said quietly. “That will never do. They will burn through the anger. They will let out their badness and the giraffes will gallop away with it, using it to fuel their own aggressions which evolution has given them as a tool for survival. We will all be better for it. Let the anger burn. It will burn away as mine did.”
Eddie spoke up, “Your anger didn’t burn away dude; your brain did.”
Geoffrey replied, “Infinity is frightening. We can’t do anything about it. Infinity is real and engulfs us at every turn. It’s best to be frightened of smaller things. You told me so yourself Emily.” Here he reached for Emily’s hand and patted it.
“That’s not what I meant Geoffrey. It’s best to be frightened of things you can confront. Things you can do something about. Like stopping this really scary lie.” said Emily. And for one second Geoffrey’s eyes opened and he seemed to see her. But it faded almost immediately and his eyes drooped again, back into beatific complacency.
Emily started to speak up again, but Eddie tugged her arm. “It’s no use Em. He’s gone.” And they left. They packed their bags and Eddie’s cat Gordon and left the village that night. Emily’s small car was stuffed to the brim and they drove out at midnight to the soft yowls of Gordon, who was not a happy traveler.
On the way out of town, Emily noted, “Well, I guess they are just not a metaphorical people. They take things way too literally.”
“No, Em,” said Eddie, “They are an extremely metaphorical bunch. If they knew that they would be okay. It’s the fact they think they’re being practical that’s killing them.”
By the next spring, the village was in a shambles. There were posters of giraffes in nefarious poses pasted all around the village, but there were also posters of hippos in suggestive poses shooting guns or hippos shooting heroin or hippos committing violent crimes. The warm wind blew pieces of torn posters and banners playfully through the streets, as if to convince the residents to lighten up already, but the mood was not light. There were weekly protests in the town square, but sometimes the protestors were protesting other protestors. The village was now split because Mrs. Harriet Gunderson, who ran the village post office, had come to the conclusion that hippopotami were the real problem and were far more evil than giraffes. While reading an article about giraffes she happened to notice that more people were killed by hippos than any of the large predators in Africa and had immediately realized that hippos were the real killers.
People lost jobs because they believed in the evils of giraffes or because they were hippo people, or vice versa. There was a spaced out looking hippo painted in thick, dripping black paint on the side of Mr. Walter’s pristine white Victorian house. Some graffiti artist had painted a giraffe with devil horns on the courthouse wall. There were posters and poorly painted animals all over town. There were houses with broken windows. The poor town constable had finally given up on trying to discipline people for such actions. The town jail only held twelve people at a time.
The people who really didn’t believe any of the stories at all tried to go quietly about their jobs without saying much of anything with varying levels of success. Even the Carpenters had to sober up a little to avoid saying the wrong things to the wrong people and thus losing their jobs or their ability to barter. It had been a rough winter with no ingress of supplies at all for months on end and people were starting to eye the basements and attics of their neighbors, especially those on the opposite side of the giraffe question. Only Geoffrey seemed calm and he would occasionally pop up at a neighbor’s house bearing a gift from his stash. Even the hippo people saw him as a sort of prophet and everyone had great respect for his wide eyed sayings and air of preternatural calm. He had now taken to wearing a sheet around his shoulders, almost as a cape, and it fluttered around his threadbare suits as he walked the town.
Things might have gone on this way forever, but one day there was a change in the wind. It was a bright and balmy day and there was a strange scent hanging in the air, hot, bright, and pungent. It was an exotic smell. And from deep in the mountains there was a sort of rumbling. At first, many people believed it was the roaring of the streams from the melting snow. This added a certain nervous tension to the atmosphere since flash floods often delayed the shipment of goods. The rumbling grew louder. Geoffrey went from door to door, quietly asking everyone to meet in the town square for an important assembly. Though his demeanor was quiet, his eyes were large and wild. It was a potent combination and most of the townspeople obliged him. The hippo people gathered to the right side of the gazebo and the giraffe people to the left. As the people gathered, Geoffrey stood in the middle of the gazebo smiling like a happy child and waving them closer. The crowd, which had been muttering and buzzing to itself, stood silent and watched him with wonder. Geoffrey began to remind them of all of the things they had believed about giraffes and all of the evils of giraffes. As the hippo people began to murmur against him, he turned to them with compassion and told them lovingly that all they believed might be true and that one thing did not necessarily cancel out the other. They might all be right to hate and fear both hippos and giraffes. And then he paused, hand held sharply over his eyes, looking into the glaring sun. The rumbling became louder. Though no one noticed it but Geoffrey, a small car pulled up in the public parking lot across Main Street under a large and sturdy oak tree.
Geoffrey smiled and raised his hands to the skies. He shouted above the rumbling din, “A wise woman once told me that the only way to defeat fear is to face it. I did not believe her then, but I have been humbled. You have humbled me with your inability to find peace. Behold your fear! Face it!” Geoffrey then leapt from the gazebo and walked through the crowd toward the growing clamor. He waved at two small figures that had left the car and had climbed up the massive old oak.
“Emily! Eddie! I’m glad you could come!” he called out.
One of the figures put something to its lips. The people could barely hear the voice, “Run! Run for your lives!”
This strange warning did not move the villagers. Perhaps they were confused by the thundering of hooves and the odd hot smell in the air. Perhaps they didn’t know what to believe any more. At any rate, they were totally unprepared when the stampede of giraffes exploded into the square. Many of them hardly had time to think at all. One survivor remembered a great golden knot whirring and pushing in the direction of the square, brushing past the oak tree, swaying the two small people hidden in its branches but not dislodging them. He remembered thinking that the oak tree would have been a good place to be. And then the herd was upon them, a tangle of limbs and dust, screams and the sounds of cracking bone. He remembered the smell of blood and then a thick force pushed his head into a well of blackness. That was all.
After it was over, while the survivors tended to the wounded, Emily leaned over Geoffrey’s battered form. He was twisted almost beyond recognition, the sheet wound around his neck. He was struggling for breath and one arm was pinned beneath him.
“You were right Emily,” he reached for her with his good hand. “They could not release their fears as I could.” He coughed for a bit, spitting out blood. “They had to face them.”
“Oh Geoffrey, you moron,” said Emily, “You are always misinterpreting me. Giraffes only stampede if you frighten them. You should have shown them that they were peaceful grazing animals. That would have been the way to confront their fears.”
But it was too late. Geoffrey was dead. The wind blew in a great gust over the field of death and wreckage and a small white card fluttered by in the wind. Emily picked it up and read, “Stampedes ‘R’ Us – Exotic Animal Rentals.” She noticed May Anna standing at the side of the square, open-mouthed, staring at the carnage. She took the little girl’s hand and walked to Eddie and said, “After we get this cleaned up, let’s call the auto club and then go hang out at the library until they get here.”