By Adam Sedia
After crossing the Great Mountains, I saw before me, to the west, a vast and sprawling plain. Many great rivers crossed its fertile fields, teeming at that time of year with wheat and cotton. Yet it has no cities to speak of–only small villages scattered about. The simple folk of the foothills had told me that the land held many great ruins–vast cities of stone that now stood empty and crumbling, inhabited only by the owls and jackals. Some of them even claimed to see the ruins with their own eyes and gave awed descriptions. I was intrigued, and I asked my guide to show me the ruins, but he only scowled and shuddered.
“They are cursed,” he said. “Ask me no more of them.”
The foothill-folk had warned me of that–of how my guide’s people saw their own land, and especially the ruins, as cursed. They had also warned me never to call the land “the Red Sky Country” among its people. It was a name some foreigners used for the country, a very old name of an origin none cared to guess. But according to the foothill-folk, the very mention of that name here would send the inhabitants into fits of rage or trembling. Some were rumored to kill any foreigner who dared utter the name.
Of course, that intrigued me further, and from the moment I first glimpsed the plain, I tried to divine the source of its name. I found the task difficult, indeed impossible. I saw no red sky except at sunset, and it shone no redder than in any other land. Nothing else provided a clue, either–not the clouds, nor the trees, nor the smoke from the village kitchen-fires.
At last, one evening, my curiosity overcame my fear. I asked my guide frankly whence came the name. He shuddered again and chided me, his brow wrinkled with consternation.
“I guide you through this strange land. I watch you. I keep you safe. Why must you now cause me such trouble? Why do you have to ask that question, of all questions?”
“I mean no insult,” I said. “Truly, I wish to know whence this most curious of names.”
He then pondered, and told me of a custom in that country for answering that very question, and only for foreigners bold enough to ask it. He must search for the oldest man in the district, and I must meet the village elders’ approval before I could pose my question. Therefore, I must wait for some days before I could have my answer. Satisfied, I raised the question no more.
Finally, the day arrived when I was to have my question answered. My guide took me to a certain village, where he told me resided the oldest man in the district, aged ninety-nine years.
The villagers were overjoyed to receive a visitor, and they welcomed me with gifts, and draughts of sweet liquor, and a roast kid. The villagers and I shared much laughter and contentment. Once I had eaten and drunk greatly, I was summoned before the village elders. They sat in a circle, their white beards flowing over their gray cloaks. Their faces were somber, and they questioned me at length about my name, my ancestry, and my business in their country. Once I had answered everything, they ordered me to leave their presence. They did not deliberate long, for the chief among them exited their meeting-place and addressed me with an honorific.
“You are fit,” he said, “to ask our revered father the unaskable question.”
Then silence fell, and my guide’s face grew somber. He approached the old man with reverence, and said, “Your guest has asked me the forbidden question. My duty is not to answer, but to bring him before you. I have done so.”
“Who asks this?” the old man said in a voice so strong it shocked me. I told him my name. “Very well,” he said, and paused, stroking his long, white beard. At last, he said, “It is forbidden among our people to discuss that question, or even mention that accursed name for this land. We promptly chastise any who dares break that silence. Still, you are a stranger, and know not our ways. It is good that you know this story, so that others may learn its lesson.”
Then he commenced his narrative, a history unlike any other I have heard in the great many lands where I have traveled. I give it here in my own words. I omit no detail of the story, nor have I added any embellishment of my own.
Not many generations ago, the country was home to a vast and powerful empire, as befit its lush plains and mighty rivers. It built many great cities, which were wonders for their time. And the greatest of all the cities was its chief city. No king or emperor resided there, but instead an assembly of notable citizens that made its laws and chose its magistrates.
The empire arose from that city, and many generations of wise, brave, and foresighted men slowly extended its dominion across the whole plain. Soon its armies could not be withstood. No foreign king dared make war against it, and the mountains isolated it from its neighbors. Thus, the land enjoyed many years of peace. At first, wise men declared the laws of the land, and designed them to make the citizens free from tyranny. Every man could earn his living as he chose, and the land became exceedingly rich.
But the many years of peace and prosperity cloyed at the intrepid and virtuous spirit of the people. They grew soft and indolent, slaves to luxury and pleasure and fashion, and exceedingly cruel, for they had never seen true battle. They imposed new laws no longer out of necessity, but out of envy and vainglory, as every citizen in the assembly desired that he should rank foremost.
Worst of all, they grew proud. They neglected the temples of their gods and the admonitions of their forefathers. In their pride and folly, they said, “Look at us: we have done more than any people before us, or than any people after us can ever do. We have changed the face of the world and made it wealthier and more comfortable, and therefore better. What need have we for advice from long-dead men of impoverished and ignorant ages? We shall listen to ourselves, and move ever forward, to grow ever better.”
Thus, they abandoned their old ways. They enthusiastically embraced anything new, without first asking if it was good. The fashion of the moment governed their tastes, their opinions, and their beliefs. Their favorite words became “new,” “forward,” and “tomorrow.”
Then one day, one of the foremost citizens addressed the assembly, a man praised for the sweetness of his words and the artfulness of his arguments. He said, “Our nation is the mightiest on all the earth, and our people the bravest and most learned. We can accomplish anything we dream and dare to undertake. With this spirit, we can remake the very heavens themselves.
“We must question all things, yet who among us has questioned the blueness of the sky? I venture to say none of you. We accept it; we live under it as though it cannot be otherwise. But that is not so. I have spoken with the greatest minds of our nation, and they agree that blue is not the best color for the sky. Therefore, I propose that we undertake a project so grand that no other nation could or would dare attempt it: we will change the color of the sky over our great nation. It will be red!”
Then, at his bidding, many learned men came forward, saying that red was an energetic color, and a constant red light would render people more industrious; that the brightness and variability of the blue sky affected people’s moods, which would be more constant with a single color; that animals did not see color, so the change in the sky would not affect livestock. Some wildly foretold a twentyfold crop yield. Others, more circumspect figured only small changes in conditions that, extended over many years, would make the people happier and the land more fruitful.
Those who favored the red sky immediately sent heralds and placards around the city, and all cities of the land, proclaiming the virtues of their vision and urging all to do their part to realize it. The idea was new; it looked forward; it would make tomorrow better.
But not everyone received the vision of the red sky well.
The priests scoffed first, saying, “The gods created the world with a blue sky. In their wisdom, they willed that the sky enshrouding the world be blue. Who are we to question their will, or to presume that we know more than they?” The assembly and the mob derided them as ignorant and superstitious, as wanting to usurp the power of the state for themselves. The assembly ordered the temples closed and the mob persecuted the priests, who fled and hid themselves in the mountains, shutting themselves away from the world in impregnable monasteries built atop the most jagged, sheer cliffs.
Others said, “The blue sky does no harm. Generations of men have lived under it from the beginning of the world, and it has done them no ill. Besides, it is beautiful, and has inspired the poet to his songs and the painter to his canvases.” The assembly and the mob derided these as reactionaries, as unimaginative, and as traitorous, and they shouted them down and drove them from their company.
Still others pointed out that the sky would remain blue even above the glass, and no man could do anything to change that. These the assembly and the mob derided worst of all, for they stated a truth that none could deny. The assembly ordered them to silence, and sentenced anyone who spoke those words to have his tongue cut out at the root. Yet the bloody sentence was never carried out; those who knew the truth kept their silence or left the country.
All of these found themselves persecuted because they dared gainsay fashion, which the citizens revered above any god. The citizens had already decided the sky would be red, and red they would make it.
The great engines of the empire set to work, and every citizen labored in some way to achieve the great endeavor. Glaziers turned out vast sheets of glass of the desired shade of red. Great engines and countless workmen set to work erecting columns that reached higher than the birds fly, hung gossamer wires of incredible strength, and carefully fitted these with the panes of red glass. It was the labor of a generation, and many gave their lives so that the sky might turn red.
Then, at last, the last pane was fitted, and the entire sky over the great empire shone red. The citizens marveled, and a great feast day was declared throughout the land. In every city, the people gathered in the streets to praise the daring of their nation and glory in their accomplishment. But nowhere was the feasting greater than in the chief city, where the reveling lasted nine days, and the assembly proclaimed the dawn of a new age.
But the feasting ended and the citizens went about their business, and soon their red sky seemed not as exciting as it once did. Some quickly grew weary of the new light; they missed the familiar blue that they had always known, and the striking colors of the sunrise and sunset. They missed, too, the shades of green, yellow, and purple that had formerly graced the land. Under the red sky, the colors were dulled; green appeared gray, and the world seemed dead.
Many left the empire, and moved to other realms that, though smaller and poorer, had at least kept their sky blue. Many more followed them, and soon the assembly took note of the numbers fleeing the empire. They dared not question the wisdom of their red sky, but instead posted guards at every port and every road leading out of the land, and forbade anyone to leave the empire’s boundaries, except for those with permission from the assembly itself.
Those who remained, sank further into indolence and apathy. The new light made them always weary, and caused them to behave in strange ways. They grew rash, irritable, and angry. No one could tell the time of day, and schedules went ignored.
Then the harvests began to fail, for neither wheat nor vegetables nor any plant grew well under the red light. The animals, too, fared poorly in that light; the cow gave no milk, the hen gave no eggs, and the young of every animal grew small and weak.
Finally, a rebellion broke out in the countryside, far inland, among the farm folk. They suffered much, for they toiled twice as hard under the red light as before, and brought forth no food. Tired and famished, they pined for the days when they labored joyfully and prospered.
At first small bands of only men ventured out in secret to destroy some panes of the red sky. Soon, entire villages ventured out and destroyed wide swaths of it. They hewed down the great columns that supported the red sky, and cheered when the glass crashed down to earth, and basked in the clear light of the sky they had once known. Indeed, the light of the blue sky almost blinded them, for their eyes had grown accustomed to the immutable dullness of red light.
The assembly sent the army after them, but they hid among the groves and the fields, attacking the army by surprise and ambushing them at night. The army retaliated, burning villages and laying waste to the fields. Both sides fought brutally, and much was destroyed. And the red sky was never rebuilt there.
Soon, its farmlands dead and unproductive, its commerce destroyed, and its people either starving or fleeing, the great nation began to collapse. Still, the assembly refused to attribute any of this to the red sky. Indeed, it grew more confirmed in its esteem for the red sky. It lamented that its idea for the great red sky was ahead of its time, and not properly understood. It reviled the citizens as ignorant and stubborn, unable to comprehend the genius of the red sky. It decreed that uttering any words against the red sky brought the punishment of death, and commanded its generals to spare no one among the rebels in the farm land.
Finally, one of the generals, sickened of the slaughter that the assembly commanded him to wreak against his own people and no longer fearing the assembly, marched against the capital city. Many fled before his advance, but a loyal contingent remained to resist. The city fell under siege, and during the siege, it caught fire. None knows who set the fire – whether it was an attack of the besiegers or whether the assembly ordered it torched less it fall to the enemy untouched. Still, the great blaze lasted four days. It melted the columns holding up the last stretch of red sky; they bent, and the last stretch of red sky fell and melted in the blaze.
The sun shone again unfiltered on the land–but how the land had changed! Its great cities were smoldering ruins, its fields burnt, and its people fled or decimated. No longer was it the great, powerful, populous, and prosperous nation of before. In only a few years, the land was divided, depopulated, and destroyed.
Our ancestors then moved here, knowing that the land would soon yield great harvests again. We build our villages among the ruins, and married with the few inhabitants who remained. We call the land after our own people, but those of other nations call this the red sky country, after what happened here.
I have spoken. Ponder on this history and learn.
When the old man had concluded his story, all eyes were fixed on him. According to custom, I waited for him to rise before I stood up, bowed to him, and proclaimed my gratitude.
Grateful I truly was, for I indeed learned from his story. How many red skies have I seen among the nations I have known? And not one of them ended any differently. Yet I continue to see them. I may have learned the lesson of the red sky, but I doubt the vast majority of mankind will never grasp it.
Originally published on Liberty Island
Adam Sedia is a poet, essayist, translator, and classical composer. He has published three volumes of poetry Visions Beyond, Inquietude and The Spring’s Autumn, and his poems and essays have appeared in publications including The Chained Muse, The Society of Classical Poets’ journal, and Indiana Voice Journal. His music can be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives in his native Northwest Indiana with his wife and children, where he practices law as a civil and appellate litigator.
Feature Image: Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire: The Consummation”
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