The tribe – for that was what they were – foraged day and night for the perfect tree. They searched high and low, far and wide. They sent scouts out to scour foreign lands, explore uncharted territories, all the time their eyes peeled for the prize that would solve their people’s woes. One day, a horn was sounded. The shrill blast was music to the tribespeople’s ears. It meant the object of their desires had been discovered.
The tribespeople all rushed back to the camp. One of the elders saw it first. He cried out with joy; this thing was so beautiful, so perfect. The tree was carried into the camp on the shoulders of four strong men. It would represent their tribe for all eternity – if they could just make a few fine alterations. The craftsmen were rounded up and set to work on the tree, day and night. Large chisels, small chisels, all worked together, all carving away at the trunk in unison. Soon the tree was stripped of its outer layer of bark. What they had uncovered was even more beautiful than they’d ever imagined. The women wept with pride at their men’s work and the children looked on, mouths open wide in astonishment.
As the craftsmen worked on the tree they told stories: great, epic tales of heroes, villains and happy endings. The tribe’s children overheard these stories and passed them between themselves, whispering them down the lane. Every night, after the campfire rituals the boys would recount these same stories to each other, over and over. Neither the craftsmen nor the boys ever tired of their stories, such was the allure of the tree. The tree had brought a magical ambience to the camp; spirits were high; life was good. The girls, meanwhile, not so interested in the tree but duty bound to support the tribe’s efforts, would help their mothers clean the workers’ clothes and sharpen their chisels.
As the tree neared completion, one of the craftsmen found a knot, right in the heart of the tree. He pointed it out to two of his fellow craftsmen, who agreed that the blemish could be removed without much hassle, and that the tree was still the most beautiful thing they had ever set eyes upon. The three craftsmen thus adapted the design, carving a hole into the heart of the tree but working a new pattern around this new feature. Everyone agreed that this imperfection was in fact a blessing. It showed how the tribespeople of the tribe were honourable and great – but not perfect. Only the gods whom they worshipped were perfect. The tree was yet more beautiful and more representative of the tribe because of the hole in its heart.
Finally, the tree was nearly ready to be erected. The tribe’s elders came forth and added the finishing touches: the bright blue paint of the tribe that would strike fear into their enemies, and a beautiful set of wings, bound onto the wood with strong hemp rope. The tribe leader took from his pocket a small ivory knife and carved a small, rudimentary hole into the tree. This would be its mouth. The four strong men who had brought the tree into the tribe were tasked with its erection. As a team they lifted the creation high, placing it into a neat hole they had dug in the middle of the camp.
But the tree did not fit. Unperturbed, the craftsmen busied themselves, enlarging the hole to accommodate the tree. After a short while the hole was big enough, and the tree was rested in its place. It stood tall, and looked more beautiful than ever. A week later, everyone looked on in wonder as the totem pole came to life. It began to speak in slow, simple tones. The totem pole thanked the tribespeople for all they had done in making it look so beautiful, but reminded them it had not asked them to do so. It thanked the boys and girls for the lavish gifts they had placed at its feet, but reminded them it had not asked them to do so. It thanked the tribe’s elders for worshipping it every week, but reminded them it had not asked them to do so.
It thanked them for painting it in their sacred colours, but reminded them that this paint would eventually fade. It thanked them for giving it wings, but reminded them eventually the rope would erode and the wings would droop. Finally, it thanked the tribe leader for giving it a mouth. Though it had not learned to speak the tribe’s language fluently, it hoped they would understand that, being a tree, it was hard to learn any language at all. It bade the tribespeople farewell, stating that it preferred to be with its fellow trees in the forest from whence they had wrenched it.
The tribespeople were angry. They called the totem pole the work of the devil. They ripped off its wings, they scraped off the blue paint. Some lamented the traditional methods they had used in the totem pole’s construction and erection, and worked out its base must have rotted. Others decided that the totem pole was representative not only of the tribe but also of the nature of decay, and that it was bound to turn sour in time. Some desperately attempted to restore the totem pole. Others argued it should be cast back into the forest under a cloud. The tribe could not come to a consensus, and their squabbling was in stark contrast to the euphoria of the previous weeks.
Everyone blamed the totem pole. The totem pole reminded them that it had asked for none of this.
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