The Bongo Root

Short Story

Once upon a time in a far-off land there was a kingdom whose inhabitants were given to a most curious habit. Every quarter hour, the entire realm would come to a halt as every man and woman, young or old, rich or poor, would draw from his or her raiment a small, thin cylinder of an exotic herb called the bongo root.

This they would place between their lips and, making fire, set it aflame and accompany whatever they were doing by inhaling its vapors and emitting from their nostrils rivulets of smoke. Ancient texts fall silent as to the reason behind this Byzantine rite, but tradition had it that melancholy moments brought it on.

Then one day it chanced that the Royal Physician put forth in the land a terrible edict. This exotic herb, it was averred, though bringing a fleeting solace, imperiled the lives of all who used it. This caused great alarm in the realm, with much lamentation and gnashing of teeth. But finally, after much hardship, many were able to abandon its use.

Now those who made their living from this tender plant looked on and were troubled, and in their dismay betook themselves to their Liege Lord’s castle, the Grand Duke of Toxic & Noxic.

“Alas and alack!” they cried. “We have fallen on evil times! What are we to do? What are we to do?”

The Grand Duke took counsel with his wizened wizards and replied, “We shall do nothing! We shall wait out this storm which is presently upon us and, lo, it shall pass, and all will be well again, and our coffers will be full.”

These soothing words poured balm and healing ointment into their troubled souls, and they returned from whence they had come to wait out this tribulation which had been visited upon them.

But, behold, the storm did not pass, but raged ever more fiercely. As time wore on, more of the people forsook the herb as the Royal Physician rallied his fleet-footed couriers to press on valiantly into every village with tales of more deaths.

Now those who had once made a living from this little plant repaired more feverishly than before to their Liege Lord’s castle to take counsel yet again in this time of calamity. But even before they could pour forth their woe, the Grand Duke sovereignly waved his arm o’er the affrighted throng and ordered his soothsayers to trace the flight of the birds and the course of the heavens.

When this they had done, he solemnly intoned, “Cast all fear from your hearts! All will be well! We shall put it about that the Royal Physician has been led astray in his zeal and that the bongo root is really not that perilous – nay, that it is not perilous at all!”

So it was done and, behold, a deeper confusion raged o’er the land, since now no one knew what to believe.

But then yet another Jovian thunderbolt was hurled by the practiced arm of the Royal Physician, ever vigilant to inform the people of what his Royal Scientists had discovered. His words sowed even greater alarm, for now he stated that the vapors of the bongo root imperiled not only those who used it themselves, but also those who happened to be near those users. Indeed, no one was exempt from its pestiferous fumes – even children, infants, and babes in the womb!

Shrieks of horror were now raised through the land. But hardly had the Royal Physician’s warning been posted in every market square than it was rudely torn down, and in its place appeared indelicate words which made people gasp: “The warning of the Royal Physician is One Big Lie! Its proofs mere deception and trickery. Nothing is wrong with the bongo root. Indeed, some have smoked it and lived for 500 years!”

Such deceit was the Duke’s favorite stock-in-trade stratagem: Deny the truth to confuse the people so they’d grow demoralized about knowing the truth about anything, and in their despair revert to the comfort of the bongo root.

*****

Meanwhile, in the subterranean caverns of the Grand Duke’s Castle, all was not well. The young scribes who devised the jingles for this wondrous herb were having grave misgivings about what they were doing. These young professionals in the Duke’s advertising division didn’t understand the nature of Big Business or its moral ambiguities, so that many were having a crisis of conscience. So to steady these neophytes in their unsavory tasks, the Duke called them together to embolden their spirit and to steel their resolve.

“Ladies and Gentlemen: It is important that you know what is expected of you here at Ducal Enterprises. We have only one mission, which gives what we do its meaning and purpose. Big Business is all about Profit, the be-all and end-all of why we exist. The Bottom Line is our God and we, my young colleagues, are its obedient servants.

“Nothing else matters, not even morality, which can always be negotiated! Understand this, and everything else will fall into place. And should you have moral qualms about what you are doing, feel free to consult our in-house therapists who are here to help you through the rough patches that beset even our noble profession.

“We expect your full compliance with company policy, as do our board and stockholders. You answer to me, as I do to them. We have no responsibility to country, community, or customers. Our sole allegiance is to our stockholders, who judge us by one thing only — their quarterly dividends. This is all they want to know about. As long as they receive their dividends, we can do nothing wrong.

“That said, whatever we do to enhance the image of our product is permissible. You are free to say whatever you want. Truth isn’t important! Write whatever you please as long as it sells our product. When you lie, lie boldly! The Bottom Line is all that matters.

“And don’t forget to target the youth, who, as you know, are the hope of the future, our future. Capture youth early, and we will have them for life! Make our product attractive to them! That it will make them liberated, sophisticated, the cutting edge of tomorrow! The more over the top, the better they’ll like it. But note this well! If you love your own children, never let them get near our product, for it is the kiss of death!

“Ducal Enterprises has many friends in government. No matter what the Royal Physician says, we never need worry. These friends will always be there for us as we are for them with our yearly contributions to keep them in office. Some will call this a bribe, but we prefer to see it as one hand washing the other.

“Now, let me address your moral concerns, which do you much credit, but here at Ducal Enterprises we have no place for such nonsense. First, a lesson in logic. If someone dies after using our product, this doesn’t mean they died because of our product. You can’t prove causation, only correlation. Other reasons may have intervened to cause their deaths. In fact, they could have died had they not used our product, perhaps even sooner, in which case our product might have even prolonged their lives.

“And, remember, everyone must die sometime. If not now, then later. If someone dies, it simply means that their time had come! It’s all a matter of fate. After all, it’s not as if we’re forcing our product on people. They use it willingly. Of course, we do try to promote its use, but always with moderation.

“We can’t help it if customers go to excess. We’re about moderation, the Golden Mean, but if people want to die, who are we to stop them! So when critics claim that we’re always encouraging the use of our product, we’re just giving it “equal time” to counter the lies of these critics like our including secret additives to make it addictive. The very idea!

“And never forget that when you signed your contract, you’re being well-compensated. You enjoy a high standard of living, you and your families, with numerous perks and room for advancement. And so if anyone doesn’t like what he or she is doing, someone else will, since we have many more applicants than we do positions.

“The secret of doing Big Business is to have no feelings toward customers as human beings, but to view them as demographics, ant colonies or vermin. Never get too close to them. Always maintain a professional distance. This gives you detachment to do your job like the professionals you are. You’re here to sell a product, to make money for our stockholders, and everything else is sentimentality. This is an MBA in a nutshell!

“Finally, if there is any guilt in Big Business, it rests solely with our stockholders, and never with us. It is they who set policy. If they disagree with what we’re doing, they have only to tell us. To underscore their displeasure, they can even divest, for no one forced them to invest in our firm.

“So if we do something ‘wrong,’ it is they alone who bear the blame, since we are merely their humble servants. They cannot have it both ways – enjoy large dividends and plausible deniability. They read the newspapers; they know what we’re doing. So if the public doesn’t like something, it shouldn’t blame us, but our stockholders, since we’re just following orders!”

*****

This was the Duke’s little pep-talk, but there was only one problem — it left half of those present in a state of shock. They refused to serve the Powers of Darkness, so submitted their resignation by the end of the day. All they could think of were four simple words they remembered from childhood: “Thou Shalt Not Kill!”

It was inconceivable that a company in this civilized age would actually kill the very people who purchased its product. They were appalled that their job was to encourage this suicide and would have to live with this on their conscience for the rest of their lives.

What kind of people were the Duke, the directors and stockholders who could send hundreds of thousands to their death every year? Why weren’t they tried as mass murderers, instead of being celebrated as pillars of the community? Didn’t they know that Raskolnikov and the Macbeths at least had the decency of being racked with guilt or even go mad for their crimes?

The other half of the audience had a different reaction. They had joined the company without having a conscience and were puzzled that the Duke had wasted their time “on such banalities.” They just wanted to get on with their work and to climb the greasy pole of advancement. They seemed capable of anything no matter how heinous, as long as a promotion was down the road.

*****

While these proceedings were unfolding at the Grand Duke’s castle, the confusion of the people had grown so much that they gathered on a large plain to take counsel about what should be done. For days they argued with powerful words, but as each orator retired from the speaker’s mound, he was succeeded by another even more persuasive and honey-tongued, that the people despaired about whom to believe.

However, as they sat gazing into the distance, behold, they descried on the horizon a Mighty Warrior riding out of the west. All eyes were upon him as he rode closer and closer until finally he dismounted at the speaker’s mound. A hush fell upon the multitude as they pressed forward to hear what wondrous words this Warrior, richly caparisoned in battle array, might say unto them.

“The news of your assembly has traveled far, and I have journeyed many leagues to be with you.” Saying this, he paused and asked one of the bystanders for water, since his throat was parched by the heat of his arduous journey.

Refreshed, he continued.

“We live in troubled times. Claims and counterclaims! What are we to believe? What are we to do? Like all of you, I have thought long and hard about these questions, and today, by your leave, I wish to share with you the fruit of my reflections.”

Again, he paused as the crowd pressed nearer to hearken better unto what he might say.

“Some gathered here today believe the bongo root poisonous and that it hastens death. Others view it as harmless and continue using it. Finally, there are those who, buffeted about by conflicting claims, remain uncertain. I pass over in silence ‘the Unfathomables,’ who do not concern us here.”

At the mention of “the Unfathomables,” a little child was struck with wonder and, pressing gently his father’s hand, looked up and whispered, “Father, who are these people of whom he speaks?”

Bending low, the father replied, “My child, ‘the Unfathomables’ are those who believe that the bongo root will hasten their death but continue using it.”

The child, hearing this, became perplexed and, rapt in thought for several moments, asked, “But, Father, if men hold life precious and their own lives more precious than any, why then do they do what will rob them of life?”

The father, looking tenderly into the small boy’s eyes, and not wishing to trouble him with the abyss of the human heart, answered simply, “No one knows, my son.”

The Warrior continued, “The battles of life have taught me that everyone must have his due as long as he respects the rights of his neighbor. Let us therefore betake ourselves to the Great King himself and petition him to set aside in wayside inns and meeting chambers, in guildhalls and workshops; in short, wherever there may be a concourse of the people, an area where those who insist on inhaling this herb may do so among themselves. In the other chambers of that abode, the Royal Edict will prohibit its use. We need not concern ourselves with the home, for there love and regard will find a way. This I believe and recommend to you.”

When the Mighty Warrior had finished, one could hear the approbation of the people as they resolved to do as he had suggested. So leading a deputation of the people, our hero made haste to the Great King’s palace where, ushered into the sovereign’s presence, they bowed and the Mighty Warrior said, “Your Majesty, we do not deny the rights of those who use the bongo root – this is their choice, which we deeply respect, but we ask that they refrain from using it in the presence of others. May we therefore humbly submit that you issue a Royal Edict on its use in places of assembly?” He then explained his proposal.

And so it was done, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land as amity and good will began to spread. Out of regard for the rights of their fellow citizens, the users of the bongo root burnt it only among themselves, until they became fewer and fewer.

*****

But this, alas, is not the end of our story. A business to survive must always be in search of new markets. Once a product has exhausted its home market because its customers no longer use it or are dead because they have used it, new markets must be found in far-flung lands if they, too, are to share in the blessings of progress.

Even before the bongo root’s lethal nature was accepted at home, the Grand Duke had sent his emissaries to the ends of the Earth to arrange distribution rights with compliant countries. Suffice it to say that his product took these new markets by storm and swelled the yearly death toll by 6,000,000.

But how could this be, you may ask, given this astronomical number? Why wasn’t it banned in those countries to protect their populations? Three theories have come down to us: the bongo root satisfied a consumer demand due to a secret ingredient that caused addiction; it generated badly needed tax revenue; government officials were bribed.

This last possibility seemed the least credible to democratic countries, for didn’t those in office swear a sacred oath to protect those who had elected them? And wouldn’t that mean that those who were bribed had broken those oaths, perjured themselves, gone to prison, and been barred from office forever? No, it was too preposterous even to contemplate. It would have meant that countless representatives had, indeed, taken bribes; had been complicit in millions of deaths, had gone to prison, and had proved unworthy of their office.

But none of this happened. These representatives continued to serve their countries as honorable men, and so were they all, all honorable men. This proved to everyone that they had nothing to fear, but could trust their representatives to protect them forever.

more by FRANK BRESLIN

Originally published in the Huffington Post

Photo by Ravi Roshan

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