Today and old lady complimented my hairstyle. Why do old ladies always like my hair? When I am old, will it be the other way around?
There was this kingdom once where everybody lived forever. They'd discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving. Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.
The problem was that because of this life spurt, the kingdom was very crowded. The women kept having more and more babies, and the babies had no place to sleep because of the fourteen great-great-grandmothers and great-great-grandfathers that were crowding up all the bedrooms. All the old people were getting older and older, and there was no respect for elders because the elders were just like the youngers; there wasn't really a whole lot of difference anymore. Space was a real problem. So the king, getting crowded out of his own castle by the endless royal lineage, issued a decree. "Everybody in my kingdom," he said, "please pick one person in your family to die. I'm sorry, but that's the way it goes. If you don't want to do it, please leave. We will have a mass execution on Friday, and it will bring forth much more space and everyone will forever honor those who gave up for the cause."
So on Friday, the town congregated. A few folks had packed up their bags and left, but most stayed on the land they loved. The remaining families had spent the week choosing their offering. This wasn't as hard as might be expected; to be forever honored was appealing, and plus there was an unspoken curiosity in the town about dying - it was sort of like going on a trip to an exotic place no one had ever been before, and just having to stay there for good.
So that afternoon, each family that showed up in the town square had chosen one martyr to die for the cause of greater community space. There was a lot of weeping and praising going on, and finally everyone pushed forward a volunteer; that is, all except one family. This family simply could not pick. First the mother had said she would die, and then everyone in the family protested, and the father said he would die, and everyone protested, and the the daughter said she would, and no one liked this idea, and the son offered, but that was no good either, and the the baby cried and they thought it meant she would, but she was the baby and that didn't make much sense at all. The whole family was arguing and crying and volunteering and pushing and shoving and finally the mother moved forward and said to the king's executioner: "We cannot pick, so we would all like to die together."
"Well, that's ridiculous," said the town executioner. "Then there will be none of you left. That spoils the whole point."
The rest of the town was irritated was well. They didn't want the whole family gone. This family ran the bakery and was particularly adept at making a fine sausage roll, with ground-up meat and nutmeg inside, so delicious it tasted like dessert.
The family took off to the sidelines to discuss. The rest of the families waved tearfully at their martyred volunteer, who each waved back, hands shaking with goodwill and terror. Finally, the difficult family stepped forward.
"Well," said the father, "how about this. We would like offer a piece of each us. With all these pieces combined, it will be as if one less person lived in town."
The town executioner cocked his head. "Continue," he said, interested. The mother stood forward, and said, "You may have my leg." The father said he'd gladly cut off an arm. the daughter said she'd remove her ear. The son said he'd cut off all his hair, and perhaps a foot, too. They let the baby be.
"We need a head," said the executioner.
"Fine," said the father. "I will also deliver my nose."
This seemed to satisfy the executioner, so after all the other people were killed, the family was cut up and the pieces were laid out on the ground in their correct places to make a partial person who was the sacrifice to the kingdom's population control. The town dispersed, disoriented, unsure of how to mourn their losses.
The cut-up family, after recovering, still made their sausage rolls, but no one could stand to buy them anymore because it was so disturbing to go into the store and see the noseless father, with that strap across his face, or watch the legless mother hop in to ring up the cash register, or to have to shout the order at the daughter since she only had one year left. The family, broke, was forced to leave. They moved to the next town, which wasn't so bad after all, and opened up a new business, and since no one there had ever seen them whole, here they accepted the family of pieces without a problem and bought sausage rolls day after day. Each family member lived a long long time, and only the baby, who was complete, contracted any disease. When she did, at age twenty, they nursed her and nursed her until her leg fell off with gangrene, and they they had a party to celebrate her arrival.
That's the story my father told me at bed time on my tenth birthday.
-Prologue, An Invisible Sign Of My Own, Aimee Bender
Now that's an opening line.