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A Simple Love Story

Friday, December 6, 2019

Long ago and far away, in a place not at all like here, there was a small village. It was an almost completely ordinary village. 
Like many small villages, it was surrounded by vast stretches of land containing nothing that even vaguely resembled a city (or, to be honest, anything like a medium-sized town). In fact, no one in the village had even visited a city. I never heard of anyone from a city ever visiting it, either. Why on earth would they want to? It was small and, as I said, almost completely ordinary. 
The village’s only visitors came from the dark forest surrounding the almost completely ordinary village. To describe the forest as the suburbs of the village would, if it were not so utterly ridiculous, be considered either shamelessly exaggerated or an outright lie. The kindest thing I can say about the place is that it was not really a part of the village. Still, the people who lived there didn’t mind. 
They liked being able to visit the village whenever they felt like it. The surprising thing was that they felt like it so often. They were very easily pleased. 
Among them was a girl who positively loved visiting the village. Anyone from a city, or even a medium-sized town, would have noticed instantly that she was not a beautiful girl. I don’t mean to suggest that she was ugly... she was just, well, not quite almost completely ordinary. 
However, as no such outsider ever came to the village, no one noticed. 
It was not the girl’s fault, of course, that she was not beautiful. Nor was it her fault that she didn’t know that she was not beautiful. No one in the village knew that she was not beautiful. They were idiots. Every one of them. 
You think that it’s nasty for me to describe the villagers this way? It’s not, really... it’s just a plain fact. They were empty-headed, vacant, altogether stupid people. Being empty-headed, vacant, and altogether stupid, it didn’t bother them in the least. They didn’t have enough sense to know that they were simpletons. This may seem horrid to intelligent people—like you and me—but it was actually quite pleasant for them. 
Each day, the girl who was not beautiful would wake up, lovingly brush out her long and unlovely hair, and dress in her finest going-to-the- village clothes. As you might imagine, her idea of finery was not quite almost completely ordinary. By our high standards, it stunk. 
I mean it.
It didn’t matter. The villagers loved it. 
Every day it was the same story: primp, rush toward town, then slow down to a stylish saunter. She made certain that every villager had a chance to bask in the radiance of her rare beauty. At least, that’s the way she imagined it. To tell the truth, that’s the way it seemed to them, too. They were, after all, simpletons. 
Every day she passed through the village, flirting with one fool after another. Some she teased, some she tickled. One might receive a wonderfully conspiratorial wink. To another she’d flash a suggestive smile that made him melt into a puddle of imaginary bliss. 
In her own way, she was quite the artist. 
Don’t get me wrong; she wasn’t trying to mislead them. She simply did what she could to brighten their drab and meaningless lives. It was her job. It was more than a full-time job, really. It was her mission in life. It was her way to keep the idea of her beauty alive in their otherwise empty heads. 
Her behavior may seem heartless and self-centered to sensitive people like us. However, the simpletons of that almost completely ordinary village were extremely grateful. After all, it wasn’t every village that possessed such a rare and exquisite beauty. Just to be near her was to be truly blessed. They could hardly believe their good fortune. 
They were imbeciles. 
Although they all shared in this gratitude, it would be a mistake to assume that they knew that they shared it. You see, each of them believed that the girl preferred him above all the others. Each one kept his feelings secret, having convinced himself that he shared a magical unspoken love with the girl who was not beautiful. Besides, it never occurred to any of them to ask anyone else about their feelings. 
I told you that they were not very bright. 
In this dim-lit mental world, they were not alone. We mustn’t forget the girl who was not beautiful. It’s hard for us to believe that she could flirt like that, without once considering the effect she might have had upon that community of dullards. It only proves that she had the mental agility of a clam. 
Maybe a lump of mud that only looked like a clam. 
You might think the lowly clam (or similar lump of mud) sits, blissfully unaware, at the bottom of the intellectual heap. Close, but not quite. Keep reminding yourself that this was not just an ordinarily stupid town. In the stupidity category, this town reigned supreme. 
The more I think about it, the more unusual our almost completely ordinary village appears. You see, they had a natural resource that set them apart from any conceivable competition. 
The village contained one amazingly dull young man. He was so simple and mindless, that the mental superiority of clams was, for him, an utterly unreachable goal. He was more like a rock, immovably embedded in six or seven feet of mud. 
Are you beginning to grasp the situation? 
Would such a rock even understand that clams exist? What could he know of the possibility of intellectual excellence? You wouldn’t think that, even if he knew of such perfection, he would presume to possess it. 
You would be mistaken. 
From our point of view, being the village idiot in that town of fools should have been distinction enough for him. But no. He persuaded himself that he was the wisest man in town. “Unbelievable!” you say? “How could he get away with such a preposterous notion?” you wonder. “Why didn’t someone try to knock some sense into his empty head?” you ask. 
They couldn’t. 
It was not his fault, of course, that he was not the wisest man in town. Nor was it his fault that he didn’t know that he was not the wisest man in town. No one in the village knew it. 
They were all simpletons. 
You see, it was easy for him to maintain this senseless idea because no one in the town could tell him otherwise. Not one of them had any notion of the concept of wisdom. Since they had no idea what he was jabbering about, they couldn’t very well say he was wrong, could they? It was only common sense that if he wasn’t wrong, then he must have been right. 
They had never met anyone who was right about anything before. They were amazed. They were, after all, amazingly stupid. In their eyes, he was a genius. The almost completely ordinary village had never had a genius of its own. 
We—who are sophisticated and worldly—could never be deceived as they were deceived. It may sound a bit odd, but in that simple place, all the young man needed to do was to say that he was brilliant. A person actually was whatever he had the nerve, or ignorance, to claim. 
Convinced by their own insensibility, they saw him as the most respected man in the village. Their version of a living intellectual treasure. 
And so it was that he achieved the recognition he thought he deserved. 
I wouldn’t say that it went to his head, exactly, but he did start to think differently about himself. He saw his place in the village in a new light. He felt that the villagers’ new attentions befitted someone of his exalted status. He began to think that he was entitled to even more. It was a simple matter of balance, of merit, of personal worth. With the awesome responsibility of wisdom should come certain privileges. 
It was only fair. 
There was a drawback to having privileges in the almost completely ordinary village. They had nothing to give that was any better than what everyone already had. Sure, he could have more gruel than anyone else, but was that something that he actually wanted? He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think so. Even someone of his limited intelligence knew that there was such a thing as too much gruel. He could have a smelly hovel of his own. Big deal, he already had one of those. What did the village have to offer to someone as important as himself? 
Apart from the almost total absence of brains, there was something that made this village different from other villages. Its simple peasants were extremely lucky to have among them a rare and exquisite beauty. 
Remember her? 
It’s a safe bet that our not-so-brilliant youth remembered her. 
You are probably not surprised to hear that—like every other man in town—he believed she preferred him above all of the others. He, of course, kept his feelings secret, because there was no reason to flourish them in front of the other villagers. How could they possibly understand someone of his complexity? He had convinced himself that he shared a magical unspoken love with the girl who was not beautiful. The smartest boy and the most beautiful girl, together in the same small town, what could be more perfect? 
“Perfection” was a totally new concept in the almost completely ordinary village. It was a subject worthy of consideration by the wisest man in town. He applied the awesome power of his massive mentality to the problem. 
Being somewhat out of practice, he became tired after about a minute. He saw that this was more of a challenge than he had expected. He would have to be careful to keep up his strength. He took a break. 
After staring thoughtlessly out the window for an hour or so, something like responsibility made a grab at him. He threw himself back into the task he had set for himself. Actually, he would have if he had only remembered what it was that he was supposed to be thinking about. Pacing and head-scratching and staring at the ceiling seemed to help. 
“Perfection,” he recalled with a suddenness that shocked him. “That’s what I’m working on!” The effort took a lot out of him. He took a break for some gruel, to prepare him for his renewed efforts. 
The gruel wasn’t great. He seemed to remember that it smelled much better when he made it...the week before last. There was some funny crusty stuff on the top. He was pretty sure it wasn’t there when the gruel was fresh. He could, of course, make some new gruel... except he had something else he had to do. He couldn’t, at the moment, remember just what it was, but he knew it was more important than making new gruel. He was too important to be concerned about gruel. 
He ate some of the crusty stuff. 
He knew instantly that he had made a mistake. Previously unnoticed parts of his insides started pushing and shoving, trying to find a way out of his body. This was not the sort of break he had in mind. He was deeply uncomfortable, and was beginning to resent it. It didn’t seem fair that he had to suffer like this. After all, in service to his village, he was trying to discover the meaning of perfection. 
“Perfection,” he moaned to himself, “is not anything like this!” 
Free time to think about important things, that would be perfection. Not being bothered with trivial matters, that would be perfection. Having someone to take care of such things for him, that would really be perfection. 
The sickness—and a number of other unpleasant things—passed from him. He returned to his task. He was pleased that he was beginning to get a grip on his subject. He now knew some of the things that were not perfection. He could imagine some things that were. These were big accomplishments. He deserved a break. 
He took it. 
He sat staring out the window, his mouth hanging open. His unfocused eyes looked, not surprisingly, exactly like the eyes of someone who had never had a thought in his head. He felt good. It was comfortable to sit and do what he did best. While he sat, rapt in thoughtlessness as he was, things went on before him. 
Clouds floated by without benefit of his wisdom. Trees grew at a pace that was dizzying by comparison to his mental processes. Birds flew by, some of them stopping to build nests in those very trees. It seemed that generations of birds nested and raised families while he sat at that window. 
Gradually, this natural panorama penetrated his dense unthinking contentment. 
I don’t know if it was the airy flow of clouds or the flutter of wings that first broke his reverie. Like bubbles rising from the rotten stuff at the bottom of a swamp, an idea started to surface in his mind. He watched those birds with an intensity that made his previous efforts at thought seem insignificant. He was fascinated by the birds. He was puzzled by this fascination because he didn’t know why it interested him. He had the strangest sensation that the birds meant something but he was equally certain that it was beyond his understanding. 
Like perfection. 
There was no way he was going to understand perfection. He had tried his hardest, but he knew he would never understand it. He knew it as he had never known anything before. It disappointed him that he was going to disappoint the villagers. It seemed especially cruel that he would never understand perfection when it was obvious, even to him, that the birds understood it perfectly. 
They didn’t just understand perfection, the birds were perfection. 
Suddenly, he thought that he understood it all. The birds were perfect because they were together. He would not let the villagers down. He would do more than explain perfection: he would show it to them. 
He would marry the girl that they all imagined to be beautiful. 
Together, they would be perfection itself. As the brightest and most beautiful, they would be the talk of the village forever. This might sound quite ridiculous to us—knowing what they were really like—but to him it was a sure thing. Since she already preferred him over all the others, she would naturally say yes to his proposal. In his under-ripe, but over-cooked, mind everything was as it should be. 
There was just the little thing of actually asking her. 
It was not a big deal. Within minutes of the time the idea occurred to him, he had convinced himself that they had always known that they would be married one day. It was just that their magical and unspoken love had never required them to speak of it. They never needed words. 
Any fool could see the way she looked at him. 
Any fool, indeed! You and I know that he was not just any fool; he was the stupidest man in an incredibly stupid village. Worse, he was the stupidest man in an incredibly stupid village made even more senseless by imagining that he was in love. 
In a very weird way, it was perfect: it was perfectly moronic. His understanding of perfection, however, was less than perfect. 
You are not surprised? 
I never thought you would be. 
One of the things he didn’t know about perfection was that it didn’t last. Maybe, in some subliminal fashion, he did understand it. It would explain why he wasted no time converting his great idea into action. While the incredible idea was still fresh in his mind he rushed out to her stinking hovel to ask her to be his bride. 
It was only a formality, of course, but there was no point in putting it off. Since he had no reason to think that his question was unusual or unexpected, he didn’t bother to do anything to prepare her for it. He just ran up to her door, stuck his head in, and proposed. 
She didn’t say anything. 
He was stunned. He never thought that she would do anything but say yes. The darkness in the stale, windowless shack only added to his confusion. Eventually, his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He began to understand her reluctance to answer. 
She hadn’t been there to hear the question. 
He turned and ran around the back of the filthy shed-like building. He was ecstatic. She had not actually turned him down. This proved that they were destined to be together. 
Admittedly, they were not together at the moment, but that was a minor, and easily remedied, inconvenience. 
He found her, gazing in a mirror, in the pig pen. 
You’re going to ask me why there was a mirror in the pig pen, aren’t you? Simple: she had mirrors everywhere. She was, after all, the most beautiful girl in town. She had certain responsibilities. At that moment, she was busy constructing new masterpieces out of her long and unlovely hair. She was also worried about something that might just have been the beginnings of a blemish on her flawless skin. 
Take my word for it: her skin was not flawless and it was not just the beginning of a blemish. 
But none of this mattered to the young man. It did not matter, because he thought he was in love and because he was an idiot. She seemed to be the most beautiful girl in the world. He couldn’t fault her for looking in the mirror. What a let-down, he thought, it would be for her to look anywhere else
On this point, they were in complete agreement. They both shared a magical unspoken love for the girl in the mirror. He stood, gazing at her imagined beauty, speechlessly. 
Instead of “speechlessly,” I almost said “struck dumb by her loveliness,” or “senselessly,” but you get the picture. 
Gradually, he remembered his reason for being there. He was going to marry this goddess. All he had to do was ask. 
Strangely, now that she was right there before him, he found it difficult to speak. His mouth felt unusually dry. He tried to moisten his lips, but his tongue felt thick and appeared to be covered with something like ashes. He swallowed hard, in the vain hope that his courage would miraculously return. 
It didn’t work. 
The sound of his swallow interrupted her labors in front of the mirror. Her first sensation was one of annoyance. Turning to confront this irritant, she realized that a man was present. She switched emotions instantly, turning on the full force of her charms. He gasped and fell to his knees before the gorgeous spectacle. 
This was a mistake. 
He had been standing in the pig sty when she turned his way. 
Have you ever visited a piggery? Two things strike you immediately. The second is the mud. It is black, composed of all the things that you might expect to find in a pig pen. There is soil, of course, and just enough liquid to make particularly sticky mud. The source of that liquid varies, but is always intimately connected to the bodily functions of pigs. There is also rotten food. You might think that, being pigs, they would eat everything they find in their pen. Almost, but not quite. Some things they taste, find too disgusting, even for them, and spit out. This adds a certain richness to the mix of experiences you have when you visit a pig pen. It also goes a long way in explaining the first thing that strikes you upon arrival. 
The aroma. It is pungently, penetratingly, reekingly, unforgettably, mind-numbingly awful. You try to turn away from its assault, but it is everywhere. 
Have ever noticed that sometimes a tiny amount of a bad smell seems vaguely pleasant? The merest whiff of skunk, miles away, is almost a perfume, hauntingly musky. Not so with pigs. One sniff of our fat friends, and you’re looking for a way out. 
Our not-so-clever young man was on his knees in that black, stinking, clinging mud. He was slowly sinking, the hideous wetness creeping up his pants’ legs. He needed to get up, get away, jump in the river... anything to escape that dreadfully foul stench. He yelled, as if begging for a life- preserver, “WILL YOU MARRY ME?” 
Gazing at the pathetic creature at her feet, she felt the stirrings of a strange new emotion within her. It grew and grew until she could resist it no longer. Her suitor, embedded in the filth of the pig pen, watched in amazement as she was transformed by these raging new feelings. She looked down at our sorry excuse for a hero, and surrendered to a desire she had never felt before. Unfortunately for her suitor, that desire was neither for him nor for his love. 
It was for laughter. 
She thought his proposal was the most ridiculous thing that she had ever heard. She looked at the slimy black creature at her feet and lost all control. She laughed so hard that she had to cling to a post by the pig sty for support. Her laughter shook the fence apart, freeing an assortment of pigs of various sizes. 
It made no difference to her. 
She laughed so hard that her beloved mirror fell into unbelievably slimy swine slop. She looked down at the mud-splattered mirror and saw herself through a veil of pig droppings. She was convinced that there was never a funnier sight on earth. She laughed so hard that she had to sit down in that black, stinking, clinging mud. 
It didn’t bother her in the least. 
In fact, it only made her laugh harder. Tears formed in her eyes, and she was gasping for breath, but still she laughed. She wiped away the tears with an almost refined gesture that left a delicate smear of pig spittle at the corner of her eye. It was too much. She fell back, thrashing and splashing and laughing hysterically. 
She went on like this for days. 
Her suitor had never seen anything like it. No one had ever seen anything like it. Everyone in the almost completely ordinary village was thrilled and amazed by the spectacle. Of course, those townspeople were thrilled and amazed by the magic of gruel. 
It was an easy crowd to impress. 
It was easy because nothing stayed in their heads for very long. Almost everything seemed new to them. This was good for them, but it was better for our unsuccessful suitor. The villagers were excited by her weird behavior, but they were only vaguely aware of its cause. They suspected that it might have been something he said, but they couldn’t quite put their fingers on what it had been. 
The forsaken suitor knew, all too well, what had started the outbreak of laughter. Just thinking about it brought back all the horrors of his experience in the pig sty. He was so humiliated by his rejection that he nearly forgot the smell. 
On the other hand, he had learned something that no one else in the village knew. He knew that he was an idiot. It was the village’s first, and only, genuine insight. 
This knowledge changed his life. Having some understanding—any understanding—was a great burden, especially for someone with his limited abilities. He stopped strutting around like some kind of philosophical rooster. To his surprise, it did not change his status in the village. He was still a celebrity. 
This puzzled him, because he knew that he was a failure. He had not won the hand of what he still believed to be the fair maiden. His heroic quest for knowledge had led nowhere. He had not begun to understand the nature of perfection. 
None of this mattered to the villagers. They never really cared about his search for perfection, anyway. 
He remained a celebrity because he had given something to the village that it would never forget. They were simple people with simple tastes. What he had done was simply stupendous. He had caused the girl who was not beautiful to do a swan-dive into the swine-slime. They were very appreciative. If they remembered his proposal, it didn’t surprise them. Each of them still believed that she preferred him above all others. 


Have you ever noticed how hard it is to keep from picking and scratching at an old scab? It was just like that with our hapless suitor. He could not resist picking at the memory of those events. Even though it made him uncomfortable to recall his failures, he could never withstand the temptation to revisit the scene of what came to be known as his triumph. 
The not quite completely ordinary town was not very large. Often, because it was such a small place, he would encounter the girl who was not beautiful. These chance meetings confused and delighted him as only an idiot can be confused and delighted. He would smile and blush and stammer. There was not a sensible word in his head. 
He searched through the dusty and unused corners of his brain, hoping that some witty and wise remark might have been left there. He searched with the pathetic hope that shines brightest among the most unprepared. 
How could someone, who had never in his life made a witty and wise remark, consider it likely that such things were lying about in heaps, waiting to be reclaimed? 
Did he think that, in some unremembered glorious past, he had been so quick-witted and cool that he had casually put aside great gleaming mountains of brilliant remarks, unused, waiting for just this kind of moment? 
If such hopes existed, we can be sure that they were completely in vain. 
Gradually, even he understood that there was no hope. Every time he reached that level of despair, an idea would come to him. It was an idea that promised to break the horrible silence, an idea so subtle and ingratiating that she would never be able to resist its charms. He recalled that there was, indeed, one thing that would unite them in the warmth of shared bliss. 
It was always the same idea. 
Unfortunately, he never realized that it was the same idea until he heard the words escaping. As if watching through a window, he could see his own lips shaping the words, reminding her of the day he proposed to her. 
He always winced when he recognized his mistake. She always laughed (‘though she never repeated the fantastic display of their day in the slime). Her laughter, ‘though light and pleasant, had a bitter sting. It lasted for only a few seconds, but they were excruciatingly intense seconds. 
While her laughter hurt him, he did not entirely dislike it. His pain was a treasured possession, a souvenir scar, a trophy. He believed that real suffering was only possible for people of great sensitivity. People such as himself. He was proud of his pain. 
He was proud of his failure, because you can’t have great failures without attempting great deeds. That his great quest for wisdom had brought him to his knees in a pig sty meant nothing. What was important was that he had made the attempt. This was more than heroism, it was true nobility: an extraordinary mind used to answer a crucial question. How could one person sacrifice so much in the service of his community? 
It’s simple.

If you’re an idiot. 


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