Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke







Bag People


There was a time when the Jooga tribe were notorious collectors.  They took everything they could get their hands on, whether natural or man-made, and put it into piles.  They even raided the villages of neighboring tribes, harming no one but stealing everything that interested them and some things that didn’t, simply to add to their collections.  To outsiders, their village looked like a garbage dump, piles surrounding their huts, some taller than the huts, some on the huts, some in the village commons, others stretching out well beyond the boundaries of the village, strangling trees and providing homes for some animals, playgrounds for others.

At first, the Joogas had a system of classification that allowed them to put like items in like piles.  Spear-shaped objects went in one pile, egg-shaped objects in another.  Flexible objects in one pile, brittle objects in another.  Daytime objects in one pile, nighttime objects in another.  When an object fell into more than one category, the village’s Collector-in-Chief would weigh the factors and make the call.  The system worked for centuries, until the nearby river became the bearer of a new variety of objects that seemed impossible to classify.  The Joogas found floating down the river and amassing on its banks objects which appeared egg-shaped when first discovered, but could become spear-shaped simply by pulling on the ends.  Then there were objects that seemed both flexible and brittle depending on the direction you tried to bend them and on other factors, like the weather.  There were also many objects that could be used in both daytime and nighttime, and some that seemed useful at no time.  Such objects caused a breakdown in the classification system, and the piles, once neat and orderly, became chaotic and cluttered, and the sheer numbers of items found floating in the river threatened to overwhelm the village.

Then one day it began raining, so hard that the Joogas were driven into their huts, where they watched out their doorways as their treasured piles collapsed in the downpour.  The storm continued for days, and soon the banks of the river overflowed, and the Joogas were forced to climb into trees like monkeys just to prevent themselves from being swept away.  When the flood surged through the village, all the collections of the Joogas were washed away, as were their huts, leaving them with nothing.  Finally, as the waters began to recede and the rain began to slow, the heavens provided them with the greatest object yet invented, an object so useful and well-suited to the Joogas, it had to come directly from the gods.  The rain turned from water into bags, and the whole sky was suddenly checkered with falling bags.  Some of the bags caught their handles on the branches of the trees and hung there like new fruit, while others turned upside down and landed on the heads of the frightened Joogas.  When the rains, and the bags, finally stopped falling, the Joogas climbed down from the trees (some with bags still on their heads, afraid to touch them), sank their feet into the muddy ground, and wept at the loss of their cherished collections.

The Collector-in-Chief called a meeting, to which he requested that everyone bring one of the bags that had been given to them by the gods.  The bags were large, made of plain beige cloth, with egg-shaped wooden handles that opened wide.

“The gods have sent us both a message and a gift,” said the Collector-in-Chief.  “The message is that our collections had become too heavy and threatened to break the back of the earth, so the gods decided to wash them away.  To replace our collections, the gods have sent us the gift of these new containers, which are objects from their own collections.  ‘May we suggest you try these?’ the gods are saying, and as usual we will follow the good suggestions of the gods.”

Thus it was decreed that from now on each person’s entire collection must never exceed the dimensions of his bag.

Almost overnight, the Jooga culture changed dramatically.  They rebuilt their village and lived as before, but now they were much choosier about the items they collected, knowing that only so much could fit in one bag.  Their lives felt lighter and more concise, and their collections sometimes surprised them with meanings that would have been smothered in the era of great piles.

The Joogas still raid villages, but now they take very little, and if they take more than they can fit in their bags, they return what they don’t use.

“I won’t be needing this,” a Jooga will say, handing a stolen cup back to its owner.

“Oh, so it’s not good enough for you?” the owner will say knowingly.

Almost every Jooga’s bag is full, even at an early age, so that an addition to its contents also means a subtraction of something already bagged.  The young Jooga’s bag is often full of flashy items plucked from the river, while an older Jooga replaces such items with subtler ones, more personally and less conventionally meaningful.

Household items used daily--cooking utensils, clothing, personal grooming items--are exempted from the bag’s contents.  All else is part of the collection.  When a Jooga obtains a new and interesting item, he may carry that item around the village for a day or two, showing it to everyone he meets.  At night, though, it must be returned to the bag, which is kept in a corner of its owner’s hut.

The entire collection is brought out only for special occasions, such as the beginning of a new friendship or marriage.  When two Joogas strike up a conversation for the first time, one will suggest an oog, a meeting in which two people display the contents of their bags to each other.  Sometimes old friends will renew their friendship with an oog, too.

At an oog, two or more Joogas will take turns pulling out items from their bags.  The owner will describe each item, where and when it was found, what it might be used for, and will then tell any stories connected with it, which are often embellished to make the item more meaningful and important.

“This is a nut that fell on my head when I was a boy,” said one Jooga man, twisting the nut between his fingers and weighing it in his hand.

The man’s wife, a woman well known for the beautiful black beads she’d worn around her neck, had recently died, and his friends had suggested an oog to help him overcome his grieving.

“I was walking in the place where the parrots feed,” said the man, “and it was the first time I was allowed to walk in the trees alone.  The nut frightened me and left a bump on my head for many days.  When I picked the nut off the ground, I looked to see who had dropped it.  There was a parrot high in the tree above me, looking down at me, first with one eye and then the other.  ‘I suppose you want this back,’ I said to the parrot.  ‘I found it first,’ replied the parrot.  ‘But when you dropped it on my head, it became mine,’ I said, ‘so go find another.’  ‘I’ll scratch your eyes out,’ said the parrot.  ‘You’ll have to catch me first, stupid parrot,’ I said and then ran swiftly back to the village and put the nut in my bag, swapping out the eye of a fish I had recently found on the river bank.”

“No wonder the parrots don’t like you,” joked another Jooga.  “Word gets around.”

“That doesn’t bother me,” said the first man, now pulling out a mummified parrot, the next item in his bag.

The others laughed, until they noticed that the parrot’s eyes had been replaced with two of the softly glowing black beads that had once rested snugly in the hollow of his beautiful wife’s neck.

They said nothing, out of respect for this mystery, and then they looked away, searching their own bags for a story to tell.