Morry was crazy, we all agreed, in fact we told him so. He always reacted by a tolerant smile, as if he knew better and he did. Big and dreamy, he didnít look or act smart, care for sports or girls. In high school already, he was taking all sorts of courses and getting straight Aís without studying a whole lot. He could swallow a book in a few hours and, the next morning in class, tell the teacher the authorís mistakes. Few of them dared to question his judgment, even of textbooks assigned by them. They were afraid of him, which amused us because we werenít afraid, just curious about the weirdo we took him for. He had no close friends, until I got to know him better.
After a week on Egypt, we were going to move on to Babylon when he raised his hand:
"Sir, may we discuss the demonstration in Cairo first?"
Meek and cautious, Mr. Morgan reminded us of the distinction between ancient history and current events. Yet he yielded to a student he didnít want to alienate:
Morry knew more about that revolt than any of us had seen, heard or read. Everyone else in the room, Mr. Morgan and myself included, agreed that the crowd in Liberation Square would force Mubarak to resign.
Morry: "Wait and see what happens tonight."
After a silent surprise, I asked:
"What do you expect?"
Everyone, including Mr. Morgan, wanted to know.
"Mubarak gave a defiant speech on television. He has thousands of armed thugs and he hasnít sicked them on the crowd yet."
However astonished, none of us doubted what he said. The next morning, we heard that the thugs had intervened, but the demonstrators had fought back.
When I saw Morry, I asked him:
Chuckle: "The more they block it, the more roundabouts we find."
He invited me to his house that afternoon and showed me some of those roundabouts. His most amazing contacts were members of the security forces eager to exonerate themselves of complicity with Mubarak. They had access to channels maintained by the government for its own use. That was only the first of many lessons I learned from Morry. Thanks to him, my computer competence was leaping and bounding. He even taught me how to write software and repair hardware. All the other guys were doing sports and flirting with girls.
To my parentsí regret, I applied to the same university as he did instead of their alma mater, Glenborough College. Morry chose Zenia University because it boasted a better computer science department than Zenia Technology Institute, his second choice. ZU accepted him in advance, so I was afraid it might not accept me and I would have to settle for ZTech. Yet ZU did accept me and Morry invited me to room with him. My parents tactfully suggested that I should make other friends too. Although I sympathized with them, I wasnít going to give my best friend up.
Instead of concentrating on computer science like the other majors, he took a variety of courses including six in ancient Egyptian history and archeology. Although he was taking six courses a semester, he easily prepared for all of them, got straight Aís on tests and exams, amazed his professors. I settled for five and had to work hard for A-, but I always took five of his six. We did a lot of double dating, he always invited good students and I always invited cute girls. Our learned discussions often bored my dates, who complained when alone with me: couldnít we have a little fun on our own? A little distraction would help us to concentrate on our studies. I agreed, but, when I had to decide between a cute girl and a double date with Morry, I sometimes had to settle for a not-so-cute girl. Morry and I never had sex with a girl friend or shared an apartment with one. Since we were roommates all four years, we took a lot of kidding and even sneers implying that we were homos. Since there was nothing to that, Morry laughed at them and I yelled at them.
During our senior year, I met Beth who was both cute and smart. She liked double dates with Morry and Alice who, though skinny and flat, objected to his crazy ideas, which he enjoyed. What arguments we were having! Morry was getting lots of great job offers, but Alice, Beth and I were getting some too. Alice was majoring in math and Beth, in business. One Friday evening, we were sitting around a table in Gastroís, where the music was more exciting than cerebral and beer flowed more copiously than coca cola. The girls and I were talking about the offers we had received and wondering if we could all accept one from the same place. Since Morry was listening more politely than attentively, Alice gave him a hefty shove, a habit of hers that always jolted him back into the conversation:
"What if we started a startup?"
"Security... All of the current software depends on digital identification, accessible to everybody from hackers to aggressive governments."
He nodded: "Variations in the length and strength of the pulses. The parameters could appear at some identifiable position in the data. The variation could continue according to some melody, anything from ĎBirdy Boyí [a current crooner] to Beethovenís seventh [Morryís favorite!]."
"I could write the prospectus right now. Viruses are wrecking more and more havoc. Hackers are breaking into data banks and stealing vital information. The Chinese and the Russians are attacking us. We could frustrate a lot of bad guys."
"We will need a plenty of math."
"Yes! John and I will be writing software. The four of us will make an ideal team."
Smiling: "Distractionless emotions!"
Itís time to warn you that this isnít just another story about a successful startup. We got a loan because a virus had just destroyed the venture capitalistís hard disk. Our frantic attempts to produce marketable software before our money ran out, the many obstacles and setbacks we encountered, our occasional doubts and discouragements, even a few quarrels between some or all of us and our eventual success all amount to a tale too often told. Each of us succeeded in playing his or her part. In ten years, we went from a few thousands in earnings to a few hundreds of millions, from the four of us to over four hundred employees, from an old house in Mapleton to a brand-new building in Salida del Sol.
Since our software was foiling hackers and frustrating foreign intruders, the US government passed a contract with us to create Quicksand. Conceived by Morry, calculated by Alice, written by me and promoted by Beth, this system didnít block intruders as others did but rather diverted them into a trap. This trap enabled in-house operators to analyze them, insert false information, attach tags and send them back out on the web. Recuperation by the individual or government hacker who had sent them automatically released the tag altered to identify the site. The Quicksand operator could recuperate this identifier. Then he could send our "megavirus" which, after a precalculated delay, would digitally destroy the hostile system. Like nuclear bombs, however, it would destroy far more than the intended target, since it would ride all of the outgoing software. Sites friendly to us would also be vulnerable. The evil of which we realized we were capable awed us.
Together with the government contract, a program we named Discreet, that stymied WiFi interception, boosted our earnings to a billion. We were riding on the crest of our wave one Sunday when Alice and Morry took their turn inviting us to brunch. Although we usually invited a few other colleagues, this time we limited ourselves to "four mouths and eight ears." Alice served us her waffles with honey and, as usual, when we told her how delicious they were, she reminded us that they were terrible for our health:
Listening with only one ear, Morry had limited us to seven.
Morry smiled: "We are thirty-one years old."
Nodding: "Time for a change."
"We couldnít give kids enough attention. We would have to hire others to do some of it."
"What if... ?"
"... we founded a colony based on ancient Egypt?"
Smiling: "There are women who have them at home without any medical assistance."
"We could call a doctor in if we needed one. Abandon superfluous modernity, keep emergency utility in reserve and return to ancient virtue."
Morry and I laughed.
"Remember those ancient Egyptian statues of couples. The husband is always striding forward and the wife... showing herself."
I told you Morry was crazy. Alone with me, however, Beth would scorn his latest brainstorm only to make a concession that sounded suspiciously favorable. I knew Morry and Alice well enough to guess that she was making protests that didnít even disturb his smile. He knew she would accept his judgment in the end and so would we. As for me, he had already inspired the thought that we might have taken digital enthusiasm to an extreme. In that case, we needed to reconsider, but without going to the opposite extreme. Our wives had raised a legitimate issue, the risk of reversion to an ancient civilization. We had to find a reasonable compromise. Hadnít medical science reduced the danger of giving birth and increased longevity? Werenít we already approaching the longevity of ancient Egypt?
If soon yielded to how. To begin with, a transition to a compromise with ancient Egyptian civilization would cost money. Insuring ourselves against foreseen and unforeseen dangers would cost even more. All four of us had overinvested in Beware!, stocks and bonds earned as salary supplements, so we had an interest in diversifying our holdings. Keeping our seats on the board of directors, however, would necessitate limitation of this diversification. Abandoning these seats would have exposed the company to a dangerous transition. Yet each of us had at least one eager and able subordinate capable of replacing him or her. Maybe they could collaborate as well as we had. Once the new management had demonstrated its effectiveness, we could resign from the board and fully diversify our wealth. If you have been reading between my lines, you realize by now that we eventually agreed with Morry, even Alice, his acutest critic. The most amazing aspect of our agreements with him was his abstention from argumentation. He simply expressed radical ideas, letting us disagree, debate them among ourselves and eventually talk ourselves into agreement. After we lost him, we recognized that we had had the privilege of collaboration with a genius. Like all geniuses, he had been completely different from the others.
Once we had started entrusting Beware! to our successors, we concentrated on the problem of finding and buying a site somewhat similar to the region of ancient Egypt, a miniature of the Nile valley. We needed a small river springing from a mountain and flowing across a desert, which it flooded when the snow melted. Studying maps and photos of the Southwest enabled us to choose five sites that seemed promising. That fall, we took a three-week camping trip to investigate
them in a Jeep we bought for the purpose. Every evening, we found a campsite, pitched our tents and made a fire. The women did the cooking and the men washed the dishes in a stream or lake. Since ancient Egyptian men shaved, Morry and I resorted to Shicks, shaving cream and cold water. It took us a week of knicks to master this new skill. The women kidded us, running their hands over our chins. This little adventure inspired discussion of a big problem that had already begun to haunt us: how far should we go? Alice and Beth had already protested against ancient Egyptian childbearing. None of us wanted to abandon certain advantages of contemporary civilization.
All five of the sites we had selected disappointed us. One offered the spring flood we needed, but the water spread across the desert, where it would have flooded our campsite. Another had cut so deep a gorge in the desert that the greatest snowmelt and the hottest weather couldnít have overflowed it. Although another met our geological and climatic needs, hunting, fishing and camping attracted crowds, which discouraged us from spending the night there. If we had bought the property, how could we have halted this continuous trespassing? Our investigation of another site, which seemed promising at first, revealed that the river couldnít have provided enough water for irrigation and the sandy banks hid rocks that would have frustrated any attempt to cultivate them. At first sight, the fifth site seemed ideal, but then we discovered that, with the north-south orientation of the valley, the cliffs on both sides would have deprived the valley of adequate sunshine. Disappointed, we left for our return to Salida del Sol wondering if we would have to look for a site in Central America or the Carribean.
Beth was taking her turn to drive when we saw a sign indicating an Oogie reservation.
Beth had stopped on the side of the road. "Maybe they could suggest a good site."
Morry: "Who would know better?"
We had all read somewhere that the Oogies had been the most savage of the savages, but only because the white man had driven them to it. Yet we found these Oogies civilized and friendly, though puzzled by our intentions. Obviously poor, they yearned for the life we were so eager to abandon. Furthermore, if we really wanted to adopt a primitive way of life, why not theirs? Our best diplomat, Beth explained that, if we tried to imitate Oogie culture, we would not only make fools of ourselves, but also offend authentic Oogies like them. Anxious to help us, they suggested that we consult Chief FeatherErect. He was so old that neither he nor anyone else knew how much. Yet old enough to remember the atrocities his people had suffered from the white man. We found him sitting as erectly as his name indicated. He had lost his eyes, but certainly not his mind. As we explained what we were seeking, we could follow his reactions by the mobility of his wrinkles. When we had finished, he thought a minute and then said:
Enthusiastic, the other Oogies assured us that Ashugo was exactly what we were looking for. They showed us on our map how to get there, where to turn off the highway, how far to go down the track, where to leave our Jeep and the path to take down to the valley. The difficulty of reaching Ashugo had preserved its
isolation. April Singletoe, whose little girl was clinging to her skirt and watching us, gave us her phone number and urged us to call if we needed more help. She and others seemed to welcome the possibility of neighbors somewhat like them. As we drove away, Morry wondered if we could found a school for Oogies like that little girl:
Ashugo suited our project ideally. A narrow twisting path down beside a cliff would discourage unadventurous campers, fishers and hunters. A waterfall was pouring snowmelt from the wooded mountain behind it into a maple-leaf valley eroded into the desert. From a pool at the bottom of the waterfall, a river flowed down the stem of the leaf to a gorge at the tip, where it rushed down rapids. The veins of the leaf spread through copious vegetation on both sides, which reassured us of their fertility. The pool formed a marsh on one side where aquatic plants were growing. Though craggy, the slopes on either side of the east-west valley admitted a plenty of sunshine. Magnificent in all their shades, the colors were changing constantly depending on the position of the sun. A Monet could have painted thirty different views and multiplied them by four if he had returned for every season. By moonlight as well as sunlight, the valley enthralled us, so we called April Singletoe to tell her how much we appreciated FeatherErectís recommendation. Delighted, she promised to tell him. We spent the last three days and nights of our vacation camping there and exploring it. Trout were swimming in the water, lizards were basking on the rocks, deer were drinking at sunup and swallows were flying overhead. We agreed on the futility of trying to substitute ancient Egyptian species for the endemic wildlife. Yet we decided to introduce current farm animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and a few dogs for security. Wouldnít ducks
love the pond? How about papyrus instead of the reeds growing there now? Dreams? Some come true. Beth and I conceived Harry then; Morry and Alice, Charlotte. Of course neither couple knew what the other was doing until a month later in Salida del Sol at a Sunday brunch. We had a big laugh.
Beth negotiated the purchase of the seven and a half square miles of Ashugo, including the near side of the mountain, the waterfall, the river down into the rapids, the valley, the slopes of the canyon, part of the desert on both sides, the path down from the track and the track out to the highway. Only a few hundred thousand dollars! Richard Simpson, the owner, who had bought the property in hopes of establishing a dude ranch, was delighted to get rid of it. And we were delighted to acquire it. For six months, we had to resist the urge to drop everything and rush back to Ashugo. Several responsibilities challenged us: keeping research, development, production and sales going while organizing the succession and the cooperation of the management team that would replace us. We were working sixteen-hour days and seven-day weeks. Our Sunday brunches had become consultations, to which we invited our successors. Fortunately they remained faithful to us despite the offers of our competitors to hire them away from Beware! Impossible to keep rumors of our succession from circulating!
At one of these brunches, Beth warned us that she had received three offers to buy the company. Some of our stockholders, she predicted, would like for us to incite competition between them and accept the most lucrative offer. We and our successors considered such a sale a betrayal of our employees and a surrender to
a competitor. Beth organized a campaign to enlighten our stockholders and let them vote on the sale of the company. Roughly forty percent of the votes, by professional investors, approved it, while sixty per cent, by private stockholders, rejected it. When Beth published these results, our stock rose by six percent and our sales by five. Relieved, our employees welcomed our decision to entrust the company to our juniors, but regretted our departure.
We reached a point where we could let the new management team take over, withdraw to a status of availability if they needed us and prepare for the foundation of our colony. Although pregnancies complicated Alice and Bethís participation, both insisted on doing their part. Fortunately, the work load hadnít hurt their health and they could catch up on sleep. But should they have our babies in Salida del Sol or New Egypt? At first, we agreed that we should postpone our move so they could take advantage of their obstetrician and the hospital in Salida del Sol. Yet they themselves began to wonder if such a convenience wasnít too great a concession to modernity.
Alice: "If we want to restore the virtues of ancient Egypt, wouldnít our first step be in the wrong direction?"
Beth: "We could get a checkup before we leave and ask the doctor if he foresees any problems."
Alice scoffed: "Modern insurance against ancient risk?"
Beth: "We will have to distinguish between essentials and mere convenience."
Alice: "Whoís that?"
Beth: "The birth of our children will inaugurate our colony."
Alice: "All right! Iím game."
Although founding New Egypt would cost us a lot of money, we hoped to reach a relative subsistence, the sooner the better. Even then, however, relations with our neighbors would be inevitable and useful. Wouldnít we have to do some shopping for necessities otherwise unavailable? Maybe we could sell surplus food or even artwork if we could recruit an artist inspired by ancient Egyptian esthetics. Yet starting our agriculture and building two houses had our highest priority. We intended to keep everything we grew organic, but would the annual flood deposit enough fertile sediment to grow vegetables, fruit and grass for grazing? How many of the trees on the slope behind the waterfall were hardwood? Maybe we would need something more solid for construction: stone quarried from the canyon walls? We would have to build stone pillars to support the fronts of houses built high enough on the slope to avoid flooding. While we were discussing these problems, Beth interrupted:
"Hey! How about drinking water?"
I remember Morry in his study, surrounded by books open and closed, facing three flat panels and two keyboards, swiveling in his creaking chair to grab something from the bookcase behind him or the cabinet beside him next to the window. Since they were crammed with volumes, binders and envelopes, grabbing one of them often precipitated an avalanche, which he ignored. The noise always brought Alice running, scolding and shoving things back where they belonged. Except for a glance over his glasses, he ignored her. Beth and I, who by then had accepted their standing invitation to enter the house without ringing, discovered them in many a comedy. Morry had the rare ability to think and do several things at the same time without making mistakes.
Listening to us never kept him from fingering a keyboard and watching a screen or tearing through the pages of a book. Sometimes he answered us even before we had finished asking. As luck would have it, Alice was the tidiest of us all, spicking and spanning her house, and even Morryís study when he left to sleep, eat or go to the bathroom. Inspiration sometimes interrupted even those essential activities driving him back to his study and infuriating Alice, especially in the middle of the night. One night, he tumbled down the stairs and Alice came running only to see him back on his feet hurrying his study. Despite this commotion, they were a happy couple, but you had to know them as well as Beth and I did to see it. We could read it in their faces, for instance when he reached for her belly and she slapped his hand away.
Though more conventional and less comic, our affection was equally genuine and profound. Unlike them, we shared housekeeping, shopping and a home office where we faced each other across back-to-back desks. We also enjoyed the progress of Bethís pregnancy but more discreetly. Each of us four dedicated himself to a specific part of the preparation for our adventure without having to negotiate with the others. What a team we were! Beth assumed economic and financial responsibility, Alice tackled the scientific and engineering problems, I explored the sanitary and agricultural aspects, while Morry coordinated our efforts and sought omissions. The most formidable challenge we faced was the extent to which we could reasonably and safely revert to ancient Egyptian civilization. We rejected the medicine, the religion, the government, the castes and the international rivalry. None of us expected an afterlife or wished to build more than a modest pyramid and temple, and for monumental rather than religious purposes. But why couldnít we dress as the ancient Egyptians did, eat and drink what they did and live essentially as they did? Our artists could follow their esthetics and, although our musicians couldnít hear their music, they could imitate the design of their instruments. Such precedents would encourage innovation.
The more we discussed our forthcoming adventure, the more problems we foresaw. The establishment of our community would require the recruitment of other members with the knowledge and experience we needed in art, music, agriculture, construction, health, etc. To ensure demographic continuity, we needed couples younger than us and ready to have children, but we had to avoid troublemakers.
We would have to determine how large a population our resources would support even under adversity. How could we encourage or require emigration when circumstances necessitated it? How and where could we educate our children? We could hardly support an elaborate educational system, but attendance in local schools would involve troublesome problems. Goods and services that we couldnít provide for ourselves would necessitate relations with our neighbors, some of whom would probably oppose our project for one reason or another. We needed to foresee potential hazards such as over- or underflooding in the spring; destruction of our crops by disease or pests; predators such as wolves killing our livestock; trespassing by locals motivated by curiosity, morality, religion, hiking, hunting, fishing, camping or rafting. Beth reminded us of the craze for racing over rough terrain on everything from bicycles to trucks. Sooner or later, we would have to hire guards to prevent trespassing. These discussions climaxed when the number of possibilities exceeded our ability to foresee solutions.
At times, we vowed to abandon our electronic gadgets: no computers, printers, scanners, cellphones, TVs, etc. Also our stoves, dish and clothes washers, driers, vacuum cleaners... At others, however, we recognized that the success of our adventure would depend in part on our relations with our neighbors. Eventually, we decided that each of us would bring his laptop to New Egypt, power it by a generator and link it to the internet by satellite. Yet we would keep all gadgets away from our children so they could learn to think without depending on them. They would have to use their minds, depend on their memory, think and calculate in their heads, use their hand to write with a ballpoint on paper and read while turning pages. Only after they had mastered these essential skills would we
introduce them to screen and keyboard technology. They would learn hieroglyphics and English before Egyptology and digital technology. The semi-isolation of New Egypt would allow us to limit them to books and discs of permanent cultural value. There would be no peer pressure to satiate them with cutesy animation and music. We would teach them the skills necessary to meet the needs of the community: farming, fishing, hunting, construction, cooking, sewing, art and music. Yet they would also attend twelve years of local school and go to college. No sports or other extra-curricular distractions, but rather homework and tutoring to ensure success.
We even discussed the problems of adolescence. The ancient Egyptians treated adolescents as children, but we decided to treat them as adults. We would leave our children naked as they did, but we would clothe them as soon as their sex organs began to develop. From then on, men would wear kilts and women, gowns with shoulder straps leaving their bosoms bare. At least a year before puberty, we would teach both sexes enough sexology to prepare them for the challenge they faced and particularly how to avoid pregnancy. We would warn them that both parents of an expected child would have to accept the responsibility for raising it. Otherwise, couples would be free to live together and separate as they wished, although we would punish debauchery. How? Asked by Alice, this question raised the problem of law and order, which we decided to solve as simply as possible. In addition to debauchery, we foresaw deceit, theft and violence as the most likely offenses. Each of us four would take a turn serving as judge, while the accuser and the accused would argue their case before him and the adult community, who would serve as a jury. The least offense would incur reprimand and the greatest,
exclusion from New Egypt. For those in-between, the judge would condemn the defendant to unpleasant labor, such as digging latrine ditches.
We decided to keep our houses in Salida del Sol for the time being for our convenience when we returned for board meetings. The new management team expected us to attend them so they could ask our advice and discuss problems with us. We had warned them that we would have to skip one if it occurred when Beth and Alice were having our babies. For the 372-mile move to Ashugo, we rented a medium-size truck, which Morry and I loaded from my house in the morning and from his in the afternoon. We kept trying to dissuade Alice and Beth from helping us. Although we crammed the truck, we still had baggage to load in the cargo space of the Jeep. We left early enough the next morning to reach Ashugo in time to pitch our tents, cook our supper, wash the dishes and go to bed. The sun set early and rose late, but it painted a beautiful picture both times. New Egypt re-enchanted us.
Unloading the truck and carrying the cargo down the steep, twisting path was exhausting. The job took Morry and me another day and another morning. This time, we insisted on Beth and Alice unpacking things light enough to spare their pregnancy. Our kilts facilitated our work and, despite their pregnancies, Bethís gown revealed her beauty and Aliceís, her meagerness. Yet Bethís tact and Aliceís irony smoothed the wrinkles of this disparity. We had to return the truck to the rental agency in Salida-dal-Sol and get some baggage that we hadnít found room for. A flipped coin sent Morry and Alice, so Beth and I began to work on the list of priorities. Before they left, however, I waded out to the waterfall -- how cold the
water was! -- and filled a few small bottles so Morry could have it tested. After we had seen them off, I took a pick and shovel downstream to dig a ditch for the latrine, while Beth continued to unpack and put things away. The sun was hot, the work was hard, I was sweating and blistering my hands. After digging a ditch long and wide enough, I had begun to widen it when I heard a firecracker. We had decided to use them when the women needed the men. I dropped the pick, scrambled out of the ditch, grabbed the shovel and ran with it. Standing thirty yards beyond Beth, a brown bear looked both cautious and curious. Beth, who didnít look scared, was facing him with our taser in her hands. I dropped the shovel, took the taser and approached the bear, who stood his ground. The illusion of reading human emotions into animalsí faces tempted me to find him friendly. I stopped short of his pawsí reach, hesitated as we stared at each other, then decided that we had to discourage him from raiding our campsite. So I pointed the taser at him and fired. With a rumbling growl, he leapt in the air and fell on his back flailing his members, then jumped up and galloped away. What a gallop!
Though pleased with our victory, we felt sorry for the bear and regretted resorting to an arm unavailable to the ancient Egyptians.
Me: "He was admiring you."
"No he wasnít, he was admiring your bosom."
Me: "Thank God it isnít!"
"Admire her instead: her mind offsets her body."
The sun was at its zenith, so it was time for lunch. We had forsaken clocks and watches. Beth sent me to get some tomatoes from one of our "refrigerators", steel trunks sunk in the pool. Dragging it out and shoving it back rubbed my blisters, so I returned with bloody hands. Treating my wounds, Beth regretted having to resort to sterile bandages, unknown to the ancient Egyptians:
"They didnít have water-cooled refrigerators either."
"Iím looking forward to drinking their beer too."
"I envy him."
"Sucking those big beautiful boobs!"
"Despite our modern compromises, ancient civilization is going to be a lot of hard work."
"Good for you after all that digitalia!"
"Maybe you better wait until your hands heal."
"The body doesnít wait."
Face: "I miss our bathroom."
We couldnít have had that kind of fun with Alice and Morry.
When they returned in their twenty-first century clothes, we told them about the bear. They disappeared in their tent, from which Morry soon emerged in his kilt. Warily, Alice peered upslope before emerging in her gown, which displayed the contrast between her flat chest and bulging stomach:
"Man or bear!"
Her visable disadvantage incited mental compensation in the form of irony, which she lavished on our inability to divorce ourselves from modern conveniences. Such as shopping in the nearest supermarket an hour away in Sesto. It naturally catered to local taste, which hardly suited ours and even less that of ancient Egypt as Alice reminded us. The locals treated us politely and restrained their curiosity about visitors so obviously different from them. Founded in the early twentieth, the town boasted no building higher than a second floor or more recent than the seventies. Nor did the parched ranches scattered over the surrounding countryside ensure much prosperity. As we entered the Jeep to return, a muscular sheriff with a huge moustache emerged from his big Ford and inspected us from his distance. We chuckled over the likelihood of making his acquaintance sooner than later.
We had chosen the winter to initiate our colony so we would have time to settle and prepare for the challenge of the spring flood. In addition to the lukewarm winter trimester, we foresaw two hot ones, each of which would provide us with a growing season. As soon as the flood receded, we would plant our crops and buy our livestock. But first, we had to build a kitchen, two houses and a storage barn.
To begin with, Morry helped me finish the ditch and build a privy over it. We would push it along the planks on which it stood as the ditch filled up under it. We stuck a rusty old spade in the dirt piled up along the side of the ditch. The toilet paper we had bought in Sesto Super inspired a variety of ironical remarks by Alice.
For our kitchen, we chose a flat space apparently far enough upslope to escape flooding. We gathered a pile of stones small enough to drag and soft enough to shape with hand tools. Having bought a few bags of cement in Sesto, we followed the instructions printed on them to make some. Then we built a thick horizontal U lying on the ground. The opening provided space for a wood fire and supported a grill from a Sesto junk yard across the top. On one side, we added a stone structure with an open space on the bottom for another fire and another on the level of the grill in which we cemented an oven from the same junk yard. Cooking and baking, Alice and Beth requested improvements, which we made. Once a day, Morry and I climbed the slope above the waterfall to gather fallen wood for fuel. This chore enabled us to find some trees straight enough for the construction of frameworks for the kitchen, the houses and the barn. We cut them down, stripped them and left them to dry. For temporary protection from sun and rain, we sunk four trunks in the corners of a square enclosing our fireplaces and laid a tarpaulin over them. Yet this structure trapped the smoke, making Alice and Beth cough. So we decided to build a chimney behind the stove and oven to draw the smoke up and away. Since it had to be hollow, tall and solid, it took us a week of trial and error.
Although we planned to build walls and a roof around the kitchen, we decided that our houses should come first. We found sites for them up the slope on either side of the kitchen. Because of the slope, we needed pillars to support the fronts on the same level as the backs. Building the chimney for the kitchen had taught us how to erect stone pillars. The timber we had cut and left on the side of the mountain hadnít cured yet, so we bought lumber for uprights and beams from Satch Willoughby, the Sesto contractor who was also selling us cement and tarpaulins. Likewise plywood for flooring, hence more irony from Alice. Again, we resorted to tarpaulins for the walls and the roofs, although we expected eventually to build them with the timber we had cut once it had cured. Maybe we could even use bark to cover the roofs. Doors and windows? We supposed that we would have to buy them ready-made from Sam, who was kidding us:
His friendly skepticism was typical of the merchants we were dealing with in Sesto.
We had pitched a sign beside the track entering our property: "Please: no trespassing. Private property." Morry and I were laying the floor of a house when we saw two men emerge from the entrance path. Beth and Alice ran for the tents, Morry and I, down the slope. One of the trespassers was short and fat, the other, tall and skinny. In their fifties, both were wearing jeans, a baseball cap and a sweat shirt decorated by a lightning zigzag and "Onosak Strikers". They were trying to hide their embarrassment by a show of authority. Wearing only kilts, Morry and I contrasted with them by our muscular youth. Rather than greet them, we stared at them, which disconcerted them into glancing at each other. Then the shorter one looked us up and down:
Me: "We donít want any calls."
Morry: "We bought this property so we could do a social experiment. The project requires as much isolation as possible."
Me, waving: "This is our laboratory."
"No," said Morry and I.
A little silence.
Me: "Did you have Richard Simpsonís permission?"
We smiled to each other.
Morry: "The previous owner. He wanted to start a dude ranch."
Me: "You were trespassing then and you are trespassing now. He didnít mind, but we do."
Morry: "Would economic opportunity console you for recreational loss?"
"... Where can we meet with our neighbors?"
Me: "Isnít that too far for people who live around here?"
"Then why were none living here?"
Morry: "Tomorrow at two in City Hall?"
We all shook hands and they left.
Alice wanted to go with Morry, but we talked her out of it. She and Beth were in no condition to risk a trip like that. Alice insisted that he take his cellphone and call her before he entered City Hall, after he left and especially if anything happened. She worried about those neighbors ready to invade Ashugo:
Me: "Looking at... ?"
A half hour after Morryís departure, I was laying the floor in the first house when Beth came running up the slope bouncing her bosom.
Her: "Alice! Sheís getting pangs."
Although we had prepared thoroughly for this fully expected event, we were frantic. Yet we bedded Alice down on her back as comfortably as we could and assembled all the equipment we had prepared. While Beth attended her, I went to fill a bucket in the pool and heat it over the kitchen fire. When I returned with it, Alice was contracting with an increasing rhythm and the pain of each squeeze was distorting her face.
"No!" they both yelled with one voice.
Beth gave me the job of wiping the sweat from Aliceís brow. I couldnít help encouraging her:
Beth: "Here she comes!"
Alice: "Head first?"
I started to take a look, but Alice caught me and held me back.
Beth: "You can play catch when I have ours."
Alice: "How does she look?"
"Beautiful!" lied Beth.
Alice laughed painfully but genuinely.
Beth picked the baby up and handed it to me so she could cut the umbilical.
Alice: "What a filthy joke!"
Beth: "Spank her! What are you waiting for?"
After a few timid blows, I gave her a whack and she bawled
scratchily but convincingly. Beth wiped her clean with a warm wet towel and nestled her in Aliceís arms. Alice kissed her tiny wrinkled forehead.