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Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Chapter 1: A Good Day in Vilka

A Note from the Editor

My recent peregrinations in Chicago yielded unforeseen fruit, in the form of an old manuscript written in a barely-decipherable hand. Not suspecting their value, a downtown hot dog vendor was using the pages to wrap his customers' lunch. When I saw such remarkable paper adorning my Chicago dog, I raced back to the vendor and ordered hot dog after hot dog, until he ran out of paper. I kept the papers. I gave away the extra hot dogs. Well, most of them. Some of them.

There are many pages -- fragments of pages, really. Most are damaged in spots by mustard or relish. (No self-respecting Chicago dog comes with catsup.) Perhaps they do not all belong to the same document. As far as I can tell, however, they form a sort of town chronicle. The town appears to be called Vilka, but so far I cannot identify its location or era. (Medieval Russia? The British Isles during the time of the Anglo-Saxons? Elsewhere?) For all I know, the pages I have may be a translation or adaptation of a chronicle originally written in another language; Chicago gathers from every nation.

Reconstructing such an artifact is slow, painstaking, uncertain work -- rather like giving away all those extra hot dogs, one at a time, to suspicious downtown Chicago passersby. Regrettably, reading chronicles is slow, painstaking work, too. Therefore, for the reader's sake, I shall undertake to condense, summarize, and retell such pieces as I am able to reconstruct. In some cases, to preserve my narrative's continuity, I will interpolate a few words, where the mustard and relish have fully obscured writing on the page, and also where some essential point is clearly to be inferred from the chronicle as a whole, but is not explicitly stated. -- DR


Long, long ago and infinitely far away, there arose a town called Vilka. Vilka was not the only town in its part of the world; nor was it the largest or the smallest. But it proudly proclaimed itself the best. Since most of its people had never lived for very long anywhere else, and some others had only lived in places which, in their estimation, were somehow inferior to Vilka, this abundance of civic self-esteem went largely unchallenged for generations.

Vilka was ruled by an elected Prince, of all things, assisted by an elected council of several elders, appropriately called the Council of Several. Vilka's sovereignty was incomplete, because Vilka was somewhat under the sway of other rulers. All the towns in the area paid tribute to a Grand Prince, who ruled more or less benignly from the vaunted City by the Lake, and to an even more distant Sovereign Ruler, who was sometimes, albeit informally, called a king. Sometimes he was called even less flattering things.

Vilka began as a small settlement of people wanting to escape the immediate rule of princes, but soon grew into a village and elected its own prince. More often than not, this prince was disliked during his term of office. Some years, in the annual parade, onlookers would cheer wildly for everyone and everything except the prince, whom they greeted with stony silence as he rode by in his exquisitely polished carriage. Yet there always seemed to be someone who was willing to be prince.

Most of the people of Vilka were outwardly pious, and many were inwardly so, as well. Sometimes it was hard to tell who really ruled the town -- the Church or the prince. Sometimes the prince ruled both the town and the church. Occasionally, a prince would try to rule the town as if it were the Church, a strategem which led to grief more often than not. In any case, the people of Vilka built many churches -- even more churches than schools -- as the decades passed and the village grew into a town, and the town into a small city. After many years, with some assistance from the Archdiocese of the City by the Lake, they built for themselves a splendid cathedral, and the faithful began to flock to it from neighboring villages.

There was plenty of food and water in Vilka. The sun often shone, and the land, as they say, flowed with milk and honey. In fact, Vilka enjoyed an abundance of every desirable crop which did not require a warmer climate, except blueberries. In this congenial habitat, the people of Vilka married and were given in marriage. They took very much to heart the ancient directive to "multiply and replenish" their part of the earth. As is always the case, some had so many children so fast that they could scarcely care for them all, or even themselves. Some mourned their inability to have any children at all. Overall, Vilka fairly burst at the seams.

One after another, family farms in Vilka were sold to investors, who built houses and apartments as quickly as humanly possible in order to contain -- and profit by -- the growth. Still more churches were built, and many schools. Shops of all kinds multiplied to support the burgeoning population. Some who had lived most of a lifetime in Vilka began to mourn Vilka's transformation from a quiet farming community to a bustling small city. Others welcomed Vilka's increasing similarity to cities they knew and enjoyed.

For years, a series of fair-to-middling princes ruled Vilka. These included some who came to be known informally as the Penurious Prince, the Pocket-Padding Prince, and the Apopleptic Prince. There was also a succession of like-minded rulers collectively dubbed the Procrastinating Princes. In this there was nothing unusual, as princely matters go, excepting Vilka's uncommon fondness for the letter p.

The Philosopher-Prince

After the Procrastinating Princes there arose in Vilka a leader of uncommon character, who came to be called the Philosopher-Prince. This was so not because of his love of the ancient philosophers or his practice of the philosophical discipline, but because he was prone to reason carefully about things, and in all cases strove to conduct Vilka's affairs intelligently. During this same period, the Council of Several, as a whole, proved similarly inclined.

The new prince might as well have been called the Polite Prince, for his manners were unusually fine, even among princes. He was also a genuinely pious prince, and at length he proved to be a very popular prince, as well.

One by one, thorny, long-procrastinated challenges of a fast-growing town began to yield to the onslaught of diligent reason and good manners. Some who paid attention to civic affairs were much relieved, even pleased. The bulk of the population noticed little, except that their taxes were a little higher, and so was the fee for drawing a bucket of water at the public wells. And there seemed to be many more carriages in the streets than there had been before; some complained of this, and others rejoiced.

The Philosopher-Prince was often heard to proclaim, "This is a good day!" Sometimes he would declare, "This is a very good day!" Less frequently, he would intone, "This is a bad day." Whether a day was good, very good, or bad depended entirely on what happened in his realm that day -- or, more realistically, what happened within his field of vision, which was large indeed, yet, he being human, far from comprehensive.

For example, on one day he was out among the people and happened upon a small troupe of particularly talented and engaging minstrels. He stopped to listen to their unusually artful singing. Then he applauded and tossed them a few coins. To his consort he said, "Fine music has come to Vilka. I love traveling minstrels. This is a good day!"

The minstrel's leader, a uncommonly large man in both stature and voice, heard this. "My liege," he replied with a bow, "we did not come from afar. We are of Vilka."

"Splendid!" exclaimed the Prince, clapping his hands. "Sing for us again!-- which the minstrels duly did.

They sang a song even more intricate and beautiful than the last. When they finished, the Prince clapped again and said to those who were with him. "Fine music has come of Vilka. This is a very good day!" He beamed for a moment, then walked on, already formulating in his mind the words he would use later to tell the Council of Several that beautiful singing was now native to Vilka.

The next section of the manuscript is more soiled with relish and mustard than most. It appears to tell the story of a bad day for the Prince of Vilka, but I will know more -- and so will you -- when I have finished restoring it. -- Editor

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