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The Auction at the Well

Tom Tuohy

The news has spread fast. Everyone is either here, or en route. All are talking about the same thing: the recently discovered magic well. They say that one drop of its liquid grants eternal life and whatever else the recipient desires. It can apparently cure everything from cancer to the common cold, though nobody has actually ever borne witness to any of these things.

           Yes, yes, everyone is here from Nazi war criminals, to coup d'etat plotting generals; from action movie actors who dodge in and out of the traffic firing indiscriminately, to Mexican bandits who shoot pistols and shout "Hey you gringo" and then proceed to throw cheap red wine in peoples' faces. Even small children are here looking for teeth that the tooth fairy stole. Disgraced M.P.s, senators, the occasional impeached president, Mafia bosses, even serial killers, are all here to drink from the well. Mutilated soldiers who have died in hopeless wars fight with Roman centurions for the right to use the pelican crossing first. Blind people sidle along the street, apparently innocuous, though wielding white canes that can shoot poison tipped arrows. They say they got the idea for the canes from James Bond movies that they heard though never saw. Ballerinas looking for lost tutus, confirmed bachelors looking for lost socks, German tourists looking for deck chairs, suicidal poets, drunken novelists, dead popes, fiery cardinals and some very dodgy looking pedophiles, all fight pitched battles for the right to drink from the well. Civil Right's leaders shouting from megaphones, amputees, dwarves, eunuchs looking for penises, alien abductees, and even people who've undergone Past Life Regression therapy are also here to look for the person they were in a former life.

           The government is on red alert and martial law has been declared. In order to protect the well from unwelcome guests before the auction, soldiers have been placed on guard, encircling it for a three-mile radius. Worried that the soldiers might get tempted themselves by the allure of the well (for it is said that anyone who comes near it is somehow mesmerized> the government has played what it believes to be its trump card. The defenders of the well are comprised of two kinds: the first kind are not ordinary soldiers, but a special group of mutant super heroes that evolved from a failed government experiment. These wily creatures have been programmed to: a> not know what a well looks like -- thus rendered impervious to its charms -- and b> to activate suicide bombs upon the advance of anyone attempting to visit the well. The government is delighted with these arrangements though unconfirmed reports from informed sources suggest that the government has had to pay a hefty sum for advice on this matter from some middle east terrorist groups, and the Japanese government.

           In addition to this super force, which forms the innermost ring of defense, there is also a second shield comprising a multitude of doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, disabled veterans, feminists, Gay rights activists, single mothers, dustbin men, pest exterminators, captains of industry, sociologists, philosophers, and one or two archbishops to tender to peoples' spiritual needs. This, the government believes, is their second trump card, for they believe that by including so many special interest groups, they will be able to protect the well, since the latter will be too busy quarreling amongst themselves. When the philosophers point out that the best thing for the government would have been to drink from the well themselves, rather than hold an auction, the latter responded by issuing a statement at a hastily convened press conference to the effect that since they are an elected government, they, and only they know what's best for the people. They refute any allegations of impropriety, invoking the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty as their right to take any action they so choose.

           When word of this reaches the philosophers, a hasty meeting is scheduled at the Temple of Apollo in Athens. Apparently, some of the philosophers have trouble obtaining visas for various reasons, which include forgetting their date of birth and mother's maiden name. It also appears that some of the passport photos bear no resemblance to the robed, hirsute, long haired, bearded individuals that now stand in front of the custom's officers at Athens airport. Checks are made using various records some as old as Ovid, Metamorphoses, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Names are checked, cross referenced, and statuses finally confirmed. A few drachmas change hands and the philosophers are once again on their way.

           When the meeting finally takes place, the matter of the well is found to be the last item on the agenda, presumably according it with the highest reverence and opportunity for uninterrupted debate. Other items on the agenda include: the role of the philosopher in society, the value of art in Plato's Republic and also the presentation of the annual spelling contest award for the philosopher who can spell words like deontologically, apodeictical, epistemologically and positivistic. For the third year running the prize goes to a little known hermit called Demitri Smartipantz-Papandropos (Demi to his friends!), who attributes his success to the fish his mother gave him to eat when he was young. He accepts the prize of a Grecian urn, two goats and a cockerel, amid great jubilation, and offers thanks and praise to everyone past and present. He goes on in his acceptance speech to cite as sources of inspiration, figures as diverse as St Patrick, Spartacus, Samuel Johnson and William Fowler, he of American dictionary fame.

           Finally, it's time to discuss the problem of the magic well. Broadly speaking, the philosophers are divided into two camps. The more liberal minded of the philosophers agree with the government that the latter should decide what to do with the well since they are the lawmakers. They argue that it doesn't really matter who actually drinks from the well so long as there is a degree of choice made available. Those on the opposing side, however, argue that it is up to the government to set an example to the people by drinking from the well themselves. After all, they add, they, the government, have been elected by the people and entrusted and empowered with the responsibility of deciding on behalf of the people. It would be an abnegation of their duty as elected members of parliament if they didn't do just that.

           There are one or two smaller camps present in the temple and some muffled references to philosopher kings are only barely audible. All however are agreed on one thing, namely that it is unwise, indeed illegal to disobey the government. A ballot is taken which ends up with an equal proportion of votes on each side with only one abstention. All heads turn towards the abstainer in order to entreat, solicit, beg, bribe, cajole, admonish, indeed do anything that will persuade the former, for the sake of unity, to cast, what has become by now, an anchor vote. This process continues for several hours with hundreds of arguments promulgated and some of the finest speeches ever heard, enough to leave Cicero in tears, but all to no avail.

           Left with no choice, the philosophers order a vat full of hemlock and immediately kill themselves. Only one philosopher, the abstainer, refuses to drink, having what he later describes as a feeling of deja vu. He alone returns to seek the elixir of the well. When word gets out about the mass suicide by the philosophers, many suspect the government's involvement though keep quiet for fear of reprisals. There is much talk about the world's last surviving philosopher. They say he's an incredibly ugly man with warts and a deformed head. Nobody however can remember his name. A Brazilian soccer player is mentioned though all agree that nothing can be certain in this time of great upheaval. Some say that this philosopher is some kind of daemon who steals peoples' memories. Others, say that they've had dreams in which they were able to see his name though forgot it upon awakening. All are agreed that this fellow is not to be trusted and should be given a wide berth if encountered, though they are in somewhat of a quandary about how to make this known, since they can't remember his name.

           When the government get wind of this, they search their records only to discover that the pages detailing the names of the philosophers have been erased as if by magic, and are now tabula rasa -- a case of "Now you see them, now you don't". The members of the government are perplexed and hold a crisis cabinet meeting on the top floor of a swanky hotel. They decide to draw up a list of Most Wanted Criminals and agree on "Philosopher known as X" to be put at the top of the list. All are agreed that he is the most dangerous since he can alter peoples' memories and make them not want to drink from the well. They had initially thought of calling him "Symbol", but decided against it in deference to a famous pop singer, and the risk of confusing the two.

           All are agreed that the aforementioned philosopher, if apprehended, shall be charged with a whole manner of heinous crimes that include: rape, buggery, incest, sedition, theft of state secrets, mass murder, genocide, regicide, stealing warm milk from children, or whichever is deemed to be the worst at the time of capture. They devise the list of crimes from some Greek and Roman history books that happen to be lying around. Other names are added to the list in case of copycat crimes, and also to make the list look a little more balanced. The members of the government decide unanimously that it's better not to be seen to be going after only one rogue arch criminal, since that would be undemocratic and cast them in a bad light. The list is duly printed and circulated by every known organisation which includes: Interpol, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., Stasi, the Gestapo, some Israeli hit squads, and an Islington based school gang that have recently acquired an awesome reputation.

           The auction is now only six days away, and excitement among the people is reaching fever pitch. Every train, bus, aeroplane, taxi, indeed every mode of transport known to man has been either chartered, stolen, borrowed or commandeered for the purpose of reaching the auction. Chinamen can be seen peddling rickshaws, as well as Arabs riding camels, Marlboro® smoking horseback cowboys leaping over fences, Buddhist monks in stolen sampans. All are seen heading in the direction of the auction.

           Only a handful of people continue working, among them a group of physicists and seismologists who seem quite alarmed by the prospect of so many people heading to the same spot on the globe. They wonder: will this cause earthquakes, or worse still, alter the orbit of the earth? They decide to stay at their posts and monitor events, thereby being the first to get a paper out on the subject should anything happen. Other members of the academic fraternity worry that if a butterfly flaps its wings in say, Nicaragua, or a tree falls down somewhere in Sweden, the absence of anyone there to witness these events, might mean they haven't really existed. There is much debate on these points with some of the world's finest academics left with furrowed brows and nothing else to do but scratch their heads and wait.

           Meanwhile, pandemonium is evident in many cities. Bishops can be seen firing machine guns and throwing grenades from behind the relative safety of large, strategically placed religious books. The Mexican bandits have been busy looting some well known supermarkets and stealing large quantities of alcohol. Many people are incensed by the actions of the Mexicans who have now escalated their activities to throwing and spitting, not cheap red wine, but among other things, vintage champagne, port, claret, chateau la fite and whatever other expensive plonk they can get their hands on. Their victims complain to the government that they can cope with being spat on with cheap red wine, but the more expensive the wine, the bigger the insult.

           The government confer with the experts on such matters at the relevant department of the Public Insults Monitoring Panel, affectionately known as P.I.M.P. Those in the know, in their wine throwing division, argue the finer points of the matter in secret and present the government with a red paper the following morning. Apparently they were unable to present the government with a white paper as there wasn't any left owing to the amount of red wine flying around in an attempt to re-construct the crime scene. They find in favor of the Mexican bandit's victims and the government decides to move the bandits into fourth place on the most wanted list, sandwiched in between a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob, and a polish man who declares that the moon is in fact made not from cream cheese, but from polystyrene.

           Reports come in that some of the ballerinas have in fact found their tutus but have decided to go to the auction anyway. Many of them say that they have experienced a deep and profound depression since the discovery, likening it to a feeling which a top class athlete has when they win a world title and have nothing left to accomplish in their lives. Many feel great empathy for the ballerinas who it is argued have to perform a vast array of physically punishing exercises every day which often shortens their lives, renders them anorexic, and deforms their feet. Certain charities donate money to help the ballerinas set up a support group and to counsel against the negative effects of grand jtes, plis, releves, battements tendus, rondes de jambes, dvelopps, pas de deux , and any other aspect of ballerinadom. The government, not wanting to be seen as out of step with the wishes and sentiments of the people, sets up a judicial inquiry which, owing to the gravity of the situation, reports its findings the very same day. Yes, they concur, finding one's tutu is the same as winning a world title.

           In another part of the city, some of the fiery cardinals have been on the rampage shouting obscenities at anyone not baptised. "Heathens, infidels", they shout. "Ye shall repent anon", they exclaim from the tops of tall buildings. Some evangelists and mountebanks join forces and shout back at the fiery cardinals. There is a mêl&eacut;e of expletives which few would expect such people to have heard of, let alone be able to repeat. Some nuns, vicar's wives, and assorted ladies of the cloth cover their ears and run for cover in the sanctuary of nearby churches. Many of them are wounded by the machine gun fire from the bishops who momentarily stop to make the sign of the cross before letting off a few more rounds. The evangelists and mountebanks are apparently unhappy with the fiery cardinals behavior because as they see it only evangelists and mountebanks should be allowed to proclaim the word of God from the tops of tall buildings. Some learned theologians discuss the matter in a secret freemason's lodge and agree with the latter. They decide to make their findings known to the fiery cardinals, but, on their way are spat on by the Mexican bandits, wounded by the poisoned arrows of the blind people, and have Cuban cigars stubbed out on them by the Mafia bosses. It seems that nothing is sacred and no one is safe in this world where God has been replaced by a magic well.

           The time for the auction is drawing ever nearer and the government ministers are busy planning how they will spend their new found wealth. Purchases of luxury items skyrocket and the market increases tenfold in only one hour. The purchases range from large, uninhabited islands, to top of the market jumbo jets, ferraris, yachts, the latest technology in nuclear weapons, castles, diamonds, and even gold bullion. In the space of a day the amount of money pledged could pay off the debt of several Third World countries many times over. There are few dissenting voices. No-one cares. Either that or they're too busy trying to get to the auction themselves.

           The Pope, alarmed at this state of affairs, telephones some ministers in the government. As the supreme leader of the Catholic church, he feels he ought to admonish the government for their insatiable greed. Before he rings off however, he politely enquires as to whether there might be a seat or two at the auction for himself and an acquaintance. The government are delighted at this request, noting that a visit by the Pope will add a certain authority and prestige, indeed a certain gravity to the event. They agree to provide two ringside seats if his eminence agrees to sell a few cathedrals and forward the money. A deal is reached and both parties are extremely happy. One last thing the members of the government are at pains to mention: a small, delicate matter concerning some of his ever so slightly upset cardinals and one or two bishops who have become, how shall we say, a little misguided of late. "Would his eminence have recourse to remind them of their religious responsibilities to the catholic church?"

           "Yes, indeed his eminence would be so inclined to give this matter his immediate and undivided attention", and in return, is also at pains to ensure the government that he'll personally remind the said members that some punishment is in order; perhaps some self-flagellation accompanied by some self-immolation. The Pope goes on to say in some earnest that, "I'll personally whip their aaarrrrse...er...ask them to contemplate their recent behavior before the eyes of God and let Him be their judge.

           By now, the area around the well is starting to look like a refugee camp. Hundreds of thousands of people can be seen milling around, some busy pitching tents, others selling hot dogs or t-shirts with supposedly magic patterns embossed on them. A few of the more adventurous people try to get past the members of the interest groups, but are soon spotted and ejected. Others, whether more brave or more stupid, try to pole vault themselves over to the well but land on top of some of the mutant super heroes and are frazzled beyond recognition. A little while later some little old ladies are seen being given what turn out to be the dental remains of the foolhardy pole vaulters. Believing the remains to have acquired some magic powers for no other reason than that they were the closest human beings to come in contact with the well (the mutant super heroes don't count> some businessmen offer the old ladies, who turn out to be the victim's mothers, large sums of money for possession of the remains. The mothers hold their own auction so that they can bid higher for the well and the remains are sold at a high price.

           The government, keen to make sure that everyone knows about the auction, buys up advertising time using every available medium. There are announcements on every T.V. and radio station which include cable and satellite channels. The airwaves are replete with ads about the power of the magic well. In addition, the government informs the public about the arrangements for the auction which is to be held on November Third, the day after All Saint's Day. Moreover, this day is now declared a national holiday and is to be known forever more as Well Day. On the huge screens dotted around the site of the well, members of the government can be heard outlining the day's itinerary. It is made clear that anyone who wishes to make a bid for the well must do so either in writing or by registering in person at the appropriate offices which have been designated. One glance by anyone intending to do this would show them the futility of such actions, as large queues several miles long are already evident. What has also been made clear is that cheques, postal orders, credit cards, et cetera. will not be deemed acceptable -- only cash, preferably, or diamonds, gold bullion, precious metals, something else of equivalent value, or a combination of all of the above.

           This presents a problem, however, of how to get so much money to the site. Large bands of soldiers and security service personnel are seen pistol whipping people to get out of their way as they escort huge trucks and articulated lorries full of the agreed currency on behalf of wealthy clients. More and more people are killed every day, either trying to get to the auction, attempting to hijack the trucks, or getting caught up in the crossfire.

           Those not already at the site are having an increasingly tough time getting there. Some of the Mafia bosses stride down main streets, chain smoking fat Cuban cigars and blowing the smoke in the faces of whoever gets in the way. With one hand inside the elbow crease of their other arm, they shout insults and make the Italian one finger sign, "What you looking at you ugly motherfucker?" they shout incessantly. "When you were born, they should've picked you up and slapped your mama!" One of the Mafia bosses aptly named Carlos the Undertaker, phones a government minister on his mobile phone. He casually informs the minister that he's promised the magic well as a birthday present for one of his many daughters and he's on his way to collect. Needless to say, the minister politely refuses to be bribed by the Mafia bosses' very generous offer of allowing him to live out his life normally, and only die of natural causes. After a barrage of abuse which leaves Carlos the Undertaker foaming at the mouth, some more buttons are keyed into the mobile and relevant ministers spoken to. The same response is met with, leaving Carlos the Undertaker so angry that he threatens to kill everyone from Mother Theresa to Bambi if his demands aren't met. When his aides gingerly point out that Mother Theresa is already dead, he merely threatens to disinter the body and kill her again, only this time doing it properly. Unsurprisingly, the aides decline to make any more comments, well aware that their boss isn't known for his intelligence or his patience.

           Other developments are broadcast on the airwaves in an attempt by the government to monitor and thus control this huge migration of people. Not since the parting of the Red Sea for Moses and his followers, has there been such an exodus of people. Among the items broadcast are the exploits of a large band of the amputees and others awaiting transplant operations. Apparently they have been out on the street in force with their doctors, cruising around looking for recently deceased victims caught up in the current events. They are thought to be looking for just about every known body part: limbs, livers, kidneys, bone marrow, hearts, eyes, lungs, anything that they can personally use, sell, or trade. Their rationale is that they don't have much chance of getting these organs through the normal channels, but, they do have a good chance of rescuing some of the still fresh organs from the people who'll die en route to the well. Some less patient members of this group have even bought some weapons with their savings in order to speed the process along a bit. They lurk in dark alleys at night, pounce on their unsuspecting victim, and with the aid of their doctor, hack off arms and legs, cut out quivering liver and kidneys, rubbery, blood spattered hearts, glassy eyes, and throw them into bags full of ice. They have become what the government calls the modern equivalent of Burke and Hare. Naturally, their mutilation is made illegal and these body snatchers are added to the Most Wanted list entering it at number six. The perpetrators however refuse to be squeamish, telling people who'll listen that this is the lottery of life.

           In fact, one enterprising soul openly castigates doctors for not providing him with a new heart. He argues that there should be a lottery system whereby one person is arbitrarily selected every so often, humanely killed, and their organs distributed to those who need them. Since the function of doctors is to save as many lives as possible, he argues, they should adopt this system. When word of this reaches the government, they hold a secret meeting along with the bishops and the fiery cardinals. Not wishing to make moral decisions without the aid of the church the medical profession, the government sends for some of the leading transplant surgeons. But an hour into the meeting, word reaches the corridors of power that the said surgeons have themselves had champagne spat on them by the Mexican bandits, been cursed by the evangelists and the mountebanks, threatened by, and had money extorted from them by the Mafia, had Zyklon B pellets thrown at them by the Nazi war criminals, and finally, to add insult to the mother of all injuries, been hacked to death by a machete wielding mob of amputees and transplant patients, many of whom looked ridiculous, hobbling along with only one leg or one arm, half blind and out of breath through cancerous lungs or sclerotic liver. Harley street where the doctors were attacked, now resembles a cross between an abattoir and a battlefield.

           Unbeknown to the government, at the very time that these murders are taking place, Philosopher known as X is getting off the plane at Heathrow airport. His first point of call is to a warehouse near Canary wharf in London. His intention is to raise an army in order to topple the government and give the well back to the people. The first people he meets are the bachelors who still haven't found their lost socks. Many of them have only recently returned from a tour of laundrettes funded partly by local charities and partly by Marks and Spencers. Joining the bachelors are the eunuchs who are still without penises, the still deck chair deficient German tourists and those who've been looking for the person they were in a former life. The alien abductees also turn up albeit late and join in, though find it hard to concentrate as they have a habit of continually looking out of the window and up at the sky. Philosopher known as X makes himself known to the motley crew that stands before him amid gasps of disbelief. Some comment that he's not as ugly as people say, while others ask whether he really does have the gift of being able to make people lose their memories.

           The philosopher entreats them to be patient with him and addresses his audience of three hundred or so misfits from a podium at the front of the warehouse. Like an experienced politician, he offers his audience what they most want: penises to the eunuchs, deck chairs to the German tourists, peace of mind to the alien abductees, and an endless supply of socks to the confirmed bachelors. Some members of an amateur dramatic society who are putting on The Wizard of Oz come in a little later and he offers other prizes such as hearts and courage, et cetera. The philosopher goes on to outline his plan which is met with general approval and lots of nodding of heads and shaking of hands is evident throughout. One last thing the philosopher known as X makes clear to his audience. As he is still officially criminal Number One on the Most Wanted list, it is very dangerous for him and so he now wants to be know as "Reginald", a joiner from Camden. He goes on to explain the need to blend in and appear as just an ordinary person in society, someone who, as a joiner, just goes about their day to day business, doing...well...er...joining things.

About the Author (click here) © 2001 Tom Tuohy, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

Author Notes

           This story was written about a year ago* and the main bulk of it was written in one very cold day in Nagoya, Japan. Where the idea came from I'm not exactly sure, though it is essentially a parable on greed.

           I might also add that I have never written anything quite like it in terms of the style of language. It is, in places, quite unusual in the combination of idea (ballerinas losing and subsequently finding lost tutus, philosophers killing themselves en masse, Mexican bandits throwing red wine over people and insulting them). Actually, I have written some additional material since then, so, it is still somewhat inchoate as a story. I still have to come up with a suitable ending, though as yet do not have any real ideas. Hence my reason for leaving things for a while in order for the creative juice to come up with something on its own. I think it's always better to let creativity find its own pace and direction; forcing it is always a bad idea, a reason I will never be good with deadlines.

* MEANING: EARLY 2000 -- Ed.

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