Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke









The Swakes don’t stand out as tourists do.  They blend in, chameleon-like.  When they travel to a new country, they learn the language fluently, and they speak with no accent because they have no language of their own.  They adopt easily to the customs of a country because they have no customs of their own.  They walk, talk, and behave in every way as though they are natives of the country they visit.

Even the color of their skin changes.  In a country of dark people, the Swakes’ skin will darken quickly in the sun.  Maybe they won’t be quite as dark as the majority of the inhabitants, but if they act like locals no one will notice.  Then, in a country of light-skinned people, the Swakes will lose their tans quickly.  Maybe their skin will be a little darker than most, but when they speak the native tongue so gracefully, who can argue that they aren’t natives themselves?

It is said that by the time a Swake reaches adulthood, he knows all the major languages of the world and half the minor ones.  This is because the Swakes never stay in a country longer than a year.  Why should they?  They have no cultural ties to the land or people, so at the slightest inclination they move on.  And they travel lightly, carrying only the clothes on their backs, since they keep no souvenirs.  Once they reach a new land, their old clothes are exchanged for local attire.

The Swakes don’t carry money from one land to the next, either, because they know they can fit in well enough to get jobs upon arrival.  And they know most kinds of building techniques, so in each new land they build their own dwelling, one that harmonizes perfectly with the local architecture and environment.  In lands where the Swakes would be looked upon strangely for building their own houses, they dress up in work clothes and pretend they are professional builders.  They build modest, unassuming dwellings, and after a few months they abandon them and move on.

The Swakes have no common religion, mythology, or value system.  Instead, they adopt the beliefs of the country they’re in, attending churches, synagogues, or temples and worshipping with the locals.  Neither do they have any common ceremonies for rites of passage.  Rituals to solemnify death and to celebrate birth, puberty, and marriage are determined by the land the Swakes happen to be in at the time.  However, because the Swakes know most of the cultural ceremonies in the world, they will often travel to a particular country to take part in the ceremony of choice.  A Swake couple who wishes to be married in their bare feet, for example, will remember a country with barefooted marriages and will convince their families to travel there.  Then the Swakes will leave unnoticed in the dead of night, traveling by plane, train, foot, or car, arriving in the new land, also unnoticed, and also in the dead of night.

It’s not clear when the Swakes first began to travel and where from.  If the Swakes know, they aren’t saying.  It may be that the Swakes have no native land.  Or it may be that they carry their native land with them as they travel from country to country.  Some say that the Swakes have no culture at all, except for traveling, and that they don’t even deserve a name.  But others argue that the Swakes do have a culture; it is culture in the abstract, a culture of set patterns but infinitely variable form, observable only to other Swakes.  They communicate in subtle ways, too subtle for anyone but Swakes to recognize.  They recognize each other even in large crowds, and then they greet each other using the greeting custom of the locals, the language of the locals, even calling themselves by local names.  They talk about local subjects—local politics, perhaps, or sports teams, or shopping bargains, or food.  To passersby, they are just another couple of locals chatting the way locals do.  But within that conversation that others hear, they are also having a conversation in Swake.

What do they say?  Probably little.  It’s something, but it’s not something one can put into words.  The effect is of a general acknowledgment of their Swakeness, a knowing exchange of metaphors for their nonexistent homeland.  Swakes renew their friendships this way, and they renew whatever it is that makes them think of themselves as Swakes.  On certain rare occasions, they tell each other where they are going next.  This is how word gets around when the scattered Swakes agree to meet.  They choose one land and gather there by the hundreds or thousands for a festival.  The festival may take the form of a party or a dance or a political convention or whatever local options there are for gathering in large groups.  Locals may even be in attendance, never knowing that they are surrounded by Swakes.  After all, the Swakes are singing the local songs and dancing the local dances and telling jokes in the local tongue.  But those dancing Swakes, so much like the locals, somehow apply their own pattern to the dances.  How they do it isn’t clear.  They may alter the movements of the dance just slightly, or their steps may draw out a design on the ground that is familiar only to Swakes.  And when the Swakes sing the songs of another culture, the inflections in their voices follow a pattern known only to Swakes.  Or maybe it’s that they are sometimes a little flat and sometimes a little sharp, but in a sequence known only to Swakes.  When they speak in conversation, they use the local tongue but speak in a grammatical pattern that is meaningful to other Swakes.  Or they alter the tone of their voices according to a Swake tonal pattern.

Wherever the Swakes marry, they do so according to local custom, but the real Swake ceremony is taking place unnoticed to all but the Swakes.  They may marry in a church in Mexico, with both Swakes and non-Swakes in attendance, but the Swakes see one thing and the non-Swakes see another.  The Swakes see the pattern in the steps down the aisle.  They hear the inflections in the vows.  They notice the changing postures of the bride and groom.  They count the blinks and pay attention to the fidgeting hands.  They notice the angle formed by the heads as the bride and groom kiss.  They notice the arc of the bouquet as it flies through the air.  And when they congratulate the bride and groom, they do so in Spanish, but with a pattern in the words and pauses that also congratulates them in Swake.

It’s not known whether the Swakes ever had a physical aspect to their culture.  If so, they’ve likely forgotten it.  Now their culture survives only by clothing itself in other cultures, and if the world’s cultures were destroyed tomorrow, leaving only the Swakes to carry on, the Swakes would not know how to behave.  Their patterns, which are surely beautiful in themselves, would be meaningless without the borrowed cultures to express them.  The Swakes would probably wither and die.  Or else they’d immerse themselves in animal cultures, grunting and snorting and foraging for food in patterns that reaffirm their Swakehood.

There are some Swakes who’ve lost their way in the world, having spent too much time in one country and without the company of other Swakes.  They begin to doubt if they are still Swakes.  They look desperately for patterns in others, something that gives them a secret message.  They create subtle patterns in their own behavior, hoping others get the message.  They’ll pass someone on the street, look into their eyes, notice the way they blink, and will wonder if a message has passed between them, something only a Swake would understand.