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INTO THE SWAMPLAND

(Excerpt from Rise of the Sun People)

IT WOULD BE appropriate to say that this story begins in the middle world, as the tribe of alpacas and llamas that populate The Grassland have for generations known only this singular landscape. To the north the great Mount Bantu stands majestic, yet their legs were not built for such rocky climbs, filled as it is with sharp stones, dry brush and the tragedy of landslides. To the south lies The Knot, hidden deep in the dark forest, a treacherous swamp surrounded by layers of disease and pestilence. To the east a vast valley, the west endless pastures, so sweeping in their own ways that no camelid strays far in either direction. For twelve cycles of birth and death, stories have been passed down about the unfortunate soul who stupidly ventures beyond the edge of The Grassland. Today enough folk tales exist to ensure that no animal is foolish enough to test such boundaries.

Within The Grassland, however, borders are something this friendly tribe knows little about. It has been a dozen generations since the Alpacallama War, when two communities clashed on this very land to wrest power from the other. Fortunately this particular battle left no animal injured; both sides quickly realized they had more in common than reasons to fight. Simple, commonsensical laws were drawn up ensuring that no animal had more rights or privileges than the other. Understanding that two tails are better than one, the alpacas and llamas built a city to avoid the occasional rains, designated particular areas for grazing so that no patch would be barren, and forbade using the stream as a toilet, so that everyone was ensured clean drinking and washing water. In honor of the event that led to their unity, all babies born to an alpaca mother and llama father (or vice-versa) are called alpacallamas. These young ones are treated no differently than any other child.

Twelve generations later it is hard to tell the difference between an alpaca, a llama and an alpacallama, which is exactly how everyone in The Grassland wants it. No camelid is considered purebred. No one cares what type of blood flows through each animal’s veins. This does not imply that everything is perfect—animals are animals. Scuffles occur. The few that result in bloodshed are immediately resolved, both parties reconciling. No injury is worth a piece of grass. It’s generally known that if you cause hurt, you help heal the wound. In some ways fights are healthy, as it bonds the parties. They are almost treated as sport, no winners, no losers, because there’s nothing an alpacallama hates more than watching red blood stain white fur.

It is by no stretch of the imagination to say that the llamas and alpacas live simply. They love the feeling of sunshine on their backs and the smell of tall grasses swaying in the wind. Since saying the word “alpacallama” hurts their tongues, they long ago decided to simplify their names. To honor their leader, Dolly, each baby assumes the last name of their mother. Since Dolly’s mom was a llama, she is known as Dolly Llama.

Everyone loves Dolly. She is more of a guide than a leader in the political sense. If things get out of hand, she steps in. For the most part, she lets the animals lead themselves, offering a heel whenever needed.

Like many youngsters, Lorenzo Alpaca loves Dolly. He has a picture of her taped to his straw wall, each morning reciting a special mantra that she gave just to him. Dolly knows that even though the goal is unity among the members of her tribe, each individual cherishes freedom. When a child turns five, she sings a few words into their ears and tells them never to reveal their mantra to anyone. Every morning they recite these words 108 times in complete silence before beginning the day’s chores. Of all the young adepts, Lorenzo is especially focused on his mantra—the world stops existing as he silently repeats his special phrase. His meditation is strong, and Dolly helps him whenever possible.

Lately, however, Lorenzo has had trouble focusing. While making Dolly happy is his greatest pleasure, his mind has shifted elsewhere. Whenever he sits down with his mala beads and begins to count, his head becomes filled with visions other than the purple and orange twilights he is accustomed to witnessing.

Lemon Llama has just come of age and been given her own mantra. Like every new student, she is wrapped in a bright yellow shawl. When Dolly introduces her to the rest of the class, Lorenzo falls speechless. Daxalon turns to make a remark, noticing his best friend has grown pale.

“You OK Lo-Zo?” he whispers, to which Lorenzo does not reply. He waits a few moments before continuing, “because if you’re not, I’m going to do mouth-to-mouth on you.”

Lorenzo continues staring towards the front of the field. Daxalon catches his line of vision, putting together the pieces. “Or maybe you want somebody else to do that?”

“Shut up, Dax,” Lorenzo replies, a little loudly, as Dolly pauses to gaze over at the two young alpacas. Lorenzo hangs his head as Daxalon smirks. Dolly continues with Lemon’s mantra ceremony.

“That was not cool,” Lorenzo says, in a much quieter tone.

“Didn’t mean to ruffle your fibers,” Daxalon replies, chuckling.

“I was just focusing on what Dolly was saying, that’s all.” Lorenzo avoids making eye contact with his lifelong friend.

“You’re lucky alpacas don’t blush, because if we did, you’d be purple by now.”

The entire field is silent as Dolly leans over to whisper Lemon’s mantra into her ear. Lorenzo closes his eyes tightly. The serene field that engulfs his inner sight is missing. Instead, the vision of Lemon being wrapped in that yellow shawl overruns every thought. Everything that Lorenzo has ever been taught is suddenly thrown into question. His special words have been replaced by this special girl.

 

THE KNOT HAS seen better days. Long summers and arid autumns have caused swamp levels to rapidly decline over the last few years. Resources are scarce for the toads. With mosquito and spider populations vanishing, more sunlight breaks through the treetops, resulting in less water to bathe in. The agitation level of everytoad has skyrocketed.

Whereas the populations in The Knot once avoided one another, confrontations between the horned toads and true toads have accelerated. Unlike the alpacallamas, these tribes have never been friends. They tolerate one another, as there has been more than enough room for everytoad to thrive, but extreme heat and empty stomachs have lately resulted in bog crimes and aggravated toadsault. As water levels recede, boundaries are no longer well defined.

The horned toads rule by an odd form of democracy, one which they claim is the ‘truest’ form, though skeptics have words for that. Experts at smear campaigns, they use every tool at their disposal to ridicule their opponent. For example, Lorillard Horned Toad, Speaker of The Half-Knot, won his role after promising citizens less work and a more abundant food supply. After being backed by an exorbitant amount of private funding, he has owned up to none of those vows. He spends his days playing Gulf instead of solving The Half-Knot’s infrastructure problems, the very topic he is addressing today.

“I have an idea,” he proclaims. “Some toads believe we are having revenue problems. I say: bullfish! We live in the most abundant society the swamplands has ever known. This was not always the case. Thanks to Ronald Goldtoad, everything changed.”

All toads present turn to the statue of their deceased leader and bow.

“With his help, we were able to harvest more resources than ever thought possible. Thanks to his storage techniques, we have acquired enough frozen mosquitoes and spiders to last us a lifetime.”

“And still the horned toads complain!” yells Rolls Horned Toad. While Rolls has no official government position, his ability to capture insects made him the top banker in The Half-Knot. He sits in on every meeting, offering guidance when asked, or, more often than not, regardless of being asked.

“Yes, they complain,” President Alamo Horned Toad interjects. “Even though every day we give them their allotment, they say it’s not enough. With the swamp shrinking, they claim their homes are getting smaller.”

“Which is why I am suggesting that we unite forces,” Lorillard interrupts.

“You’re not implying…” says Bimpy Horned Toad, Minister of Defense.

“Yes, Bimpy, that’s what I’m saying,” Lorillard continues. “The horned toads and true toads have been enemies far too long. It’s time we settle our differences and work for the betterment of the entire swamp.”

Jewels Horned Toad sniffs. “That sounds so, so…Frogalist.”

Lorillard laughs. “Jewels, dear, that’s why we need your help, as Minister of Advertising. We need you to make the true toads believe that we’re going to share a government.”

“If we’re not sharing, what are we doing?” asks Alamo.

“Well, let’s just say, we’ll be alleviating the true toads of any unnecessary real estate or resources.”

Rolls blurts out something that sounds like a laugh. Years of smoking lilies have made his throat hoarse. “Look, there’s nothing ‘true’ about those Swampalist toads. They honor none of the ideologies that the sacred Ronald Goldtoad preached. No toad owns property on that side of The Knot. They say they share everything and no toad has more resources than anytoad else. And because of this, Ronald is punishing us, by wreaking havoc on our ecosystem. When he was in power, there was the perfect balance of sunlight and rain. Today it barely drizzles and it’s blasted hot all the time. We have the heathen practices of the true toads to thank. If we don’t put an end to it and take control of the entire Knot, it will be the end of us, I promise you that.”

“How am I supposed to help with that?” Jewels asks.

“By showing them the true power of Toadalism,” Lorillard responds. “We have to make them understand that there’s no other way. Thanks to the divine knowledge of Ronald and his prophet, Spawn Greentoad, we have been honored with this gift. If those Frogalist pygmy lizards want to believe otherwise, the entire swamp will soon be gone. We owe it to everytoad to do something about it.”

“Ok, I have the perfect plan,” Jewels replies. “Those little true toads are so quaint and stupid. Rolls, I’m going to need some help with this.”

Rolls cough-laughs again, the fat around his cheeks spreading over his face. “You got it, babe.”