The Night of the Little Brown Men
David Lewis Stein
He could see them; he could almost smell them, lying there in the darkness, their brown skins and black pyjamas blending into the muck of the jungle floor. He lay on his bed in the hot, close room and he could see all the little brown men lying there, waiting for the Americans, Glenn Ford, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, walking single file up the jungle trail. In a moment, the Americans would be between them and the little brown men would stand up and open fire.
In the next room, he could hear the crib rocking as the child woke and began to stir. Soon, he knew, his son would begin to cry and his wife would get up from beside him and the day would begin. In the clear light of morning, he would be all right again. He would be able then to forget the terrible vision of the little brown men that had racked him all night.
What do they want from me? he said. He addressed the ceiling because that was as close as he could bring himself to talking to God. When people asked, he said he was an agnostic but the truth was he believed in God. He had a theory and he had explained it many times over bottles of Beaujolais and empty espresso cups. God, he told his listeners, was the force that made him write music. God is pure creative power. You with your writing, and you over there with your sculpture, and me with my music, we are all expressions of God.
When they objected, when they accused him of being a pantheist, a pagan even, he did not fight back. He hated to argue. Violence of any kind gave him a migraine headache. Anyway, their criticism never shook his faith. He knew what he knew.
Why don’t they leave me alone, he said to his bedroom ceiling. Look, I’m guilty. Everything the white man did in Asia for three hundred years he did in my name. Okay? What more can I do? I can’t stop the Americans. They’ve all gone crazy. They don’t even talk about right and wrong, or Democracy and Communism any more. They just go on and on about the agonies of power, their mouths filled all the time with those terrible wooden phrases about responsibility and peace and defending freedom.
His wife stirred under the blankets beside him and turned onto her stomach. He reached down to touch her. Her body, under the thin cotton nightgown, was as warm as toast. So thin, a child’s body. She was still so much a child. He had been married to her for a whole year and she seemed to grow only more soft and innocent.
What did her world consist of? Her cello. The Victoria String Quartet. Lessons once a week and three hours of rehearsal every day for her conservatory recital in the fall. Her music and her husband. Her beautiful, hairy-chested, curly-headed husband. Her husband, the music teacher, the composer and intellectual. Her music, her husband and now, too, the baby. She clutched his hand to the door of the delivery room and the nurse wheeling her blessed them with a patronizing smile. Such children! Two beautiful, talented children playing house together. And look what we did! All by ourselves we made a baby. And it was so easy. And the baby too was beautiful.
He tried to imagine the songs the little brown men sang as they fired their tommy guns at the Americans. But the only songs he could imagine for them sounded too much like something Pete Seeger might use to serenade an undergraduate audience. What have they done to the rain? Turned it into napalm, that’s what they’ve done. Flaming gas pouring from the sky. And the little brown men were coming to ask him, where were you when the Americans dropped napalm over us? What did you do about the Lazy Dog that spewed deadly metal slivers through our villages?
I was writing music. I wrote three sonatas for harpsichord. I wrote a concerto for flute and piano to celebrate the birth of my son. And right now, I’m working on my first symphony. I come home from the conservatory and my wife clears the baby out of the living room and I sit down to work on my symphony until suppertime. I’m an artist. What happens in the outside world doesn’t concern me.
He remembered the day his wife had explained Lester Pearson to him and he smiled up at the ceiling. Surely God must smile back and bless such tender moments between a man and a woman.
“Pearson is really a conservative,” his wife had said. “He shouldn’t go around calling himself a Liberal. It’s a very dishonest thing for him to do.”
He had come home and found her clipping newspaper editorials and putting them into one of the folders she always seemed to have around the apartment. He had asked her gently why she cared what Pearson was.
“Because in the next election, I’ll be old enough to vote,” she had said. “I want to vote for the right man. Pearson says he’s a liberal but really, he has a very conservative mind. He thinks just like Diefenbaker. And besides, he lisps.”
“Don’t blame me,” he had said. “I voted for Tommy Douglas. Remember?”
“You vote the way your father always voted,” she had said. “That doesn’t count.”
“You’re a musician,” he had said. “You shouldn’t care what a lot of crooked politicians do.”
“Oh you’re so wrong,” she had said. “I can’t tell you how wrong you are.” She touched his heart when she was trying to be serious. “Serious” was one of her favourite words. “Marriage,” she liked to say, “is a very serious business.” Once a week she gave him a detailed analysis of how she thought their relationship was progressing.
“Politics are part of life,” she had said. “Nothing human should ever be alien to us. I’ve heard you say that a thousand times.”
She was wrong, of course, especially about why he voted socialist. But he had refused to spoil the moment by getting into a political argument with her. The truth was he voted socialist because socialism was Good. He believed in Good just as he believed in God. God smiled down on the world and offered the occasional word of encouragement, especially to artists, but it was the Good things that made the world livable. Unemployment Insurance was Good. A redistribution of wealth was Good. Medicare was Good. The CBC was Good and the Canada Council was Good although it could be better and give more money to individual artists instead of always to institutions like the ballet and the symphony orchestra that had their own organizations for raising funds. A better break for French Canadians was Good; nuclear disarmament was Good; Robert Fulford was Good. The ecumenical movement was Good. Sex was Good; food and wine were Good and even a little whisky once in a while was Good. Painting was Good and writing was Good and music was Good. He was Good although he knew he sometimes had Bad thoughts.
Surely that all counts for something, he said. But how do I explain it to the little brown men? Do they even have a word for it in their strange, five-tone language? He thought not. History was the only thing the little brown men understood. History does not reward Good and punish Evil. History is blind. History bestows power on whoever is first in line to receive it. The little brown men understood that history was on their side. What the white men liked to call their western civilization was dying on its feet. The white men, the Americans, were fighting now only to preserve their wealth. And this was not enough; money is not worth that much killing and dying for. The Americans laboured under a dead weight of guilt. They knew their time was up but they would not admit it. History had left them behind but they refused to even utter the words. Their stubbornness only prolonged the collective agony of the world. Stupid, stupid Americans.
He could see the little brown men moving silently under the jungle trees. They were spread out, advancing on a broad front, like Robin Hood’s men through the forest of Nottingham. He imagined that his bed lay in an exposed clearing and they were coming for him. What did they want from him? How much were they entitled to ask?
Did the little brown men hate him just because his skin was white? What kind of world did the little brown men really want? He thought of it as a world to be filled by not quite people. All his traditions, the books, the music, the architecture, the very language that he breathed in and out every day, “soul, spirit, sensitivity, self-expression” had taught him to glorify the individual. The only real evil in the world was to have the potential to create something and not do it. To have the talent to become a composer or an artist or even a chartered accountant and to stifle this ability was a crime against nature. It was an affront to God.
The trouble was that individuals needed room. And now there was almost no room left in the world. The population had exploded, every newspaper carried some new and horrifying statistical forecast of what the world would be like in the year 2000. Only a special kind of man, one who had long ago surrendered his private dreams to the collective need, could survive in this new, overcrowded world. The Chinese understood this and had turned themselves into ants, marching by the millions every day to the fields and factories in their blue cotton uniforms. The Chinese never talked about “sensitivity” and “self-expression” because such things were no longer needed and, in fact, did not exist in their world. The Chinese had learned to be collective human beings. The little brown men had learned too. They would inherit the earth because they were the people best prepared to live on it. “Collectivize” – that was the idea history had given them. Time was on their side. They knew they were going to win.
How did the little brown men manage to make sandals from old tires? Tires were curved. The sandals must be curved too. How did the sandals fit over the feet of the little brown men? Why did the newspapers always say they wore black pyjamas? If they wore them during the day to fight in, what did they wear to sleep in at night? How did they make their clothes? Did they have sewing machines? Did they have whole pyjama factories hidden away in the jungle?
They were coming now. They padded silently over the jungle paths. They swung through the trees like Tarzan. They climbed out of the paddy fields, their faces covered with slime. I’m a musician, he whispered to them. I wrote music to make the world a better place. They were over him. They were past him. They swept on as though he had never existed. As though Beethoven and Brahms and Bach and Bartok and Shostakovich had never existed. Ten thousand years of history, ten thousand years of men learning to accumulate and organize and systemize their experience so that he could come and in a few years, three for his B.A., two for his M.A., retrace the steps of all the musicians who had gone before him and hold all their knowledge inside him so that he could be ready when his turn came to advance the world one more step along the road and upward toward God, it was all gone in an instant. Trampled under the rubber-tired soles of the little brown men.
“The baby,” his wife sad. She jumped from the bed, instantly awake, and ran into the next room. The blankets caught and held her nightgown and he caught a glimpse of her long white legs. They reassured him. He was going to be all right and he was going to look after her too. He saw clearly the way out now.
“Poor kiddo, he’s soaking wet,” his wife said. She came into the bedroom, holding the baby in the crook of her arm. The child cried bitterly. His son sounded startlingly old to him. Sobs racked and choked the tiny body. His son bawled in rage and frustration.
“Didn’t you hear him?” his wife said.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Are you feeling all right? You don’t look so good.”
“I couldn’t fall asleep. I’ve been up most of the night.”
“Poor baby,” his wife said. She shifted her son awkwardly in her arm so that she could bend over and kiss her husband on the forehead.
“Go back to sleep,” she said. “I’ll take kiddo into the next room and change him there. We won’t disturb you any more.”
She left and he pulled the blankets over his head. It struck him that what he was about to do was, in fact, total and abject surrender. For an instant, resentment flickered inside him and threatened to flare out into angry rebellion. But he quenched this feeling. Surrender was the only way. There was no fighting history.
I resign all concepts of the Good, he said through the blankets. I accept freely and willingly, and being of sound mind and body, my guilt for everything the Americans have done or are going to do. I accept that everything I believe in is a product of the rise of the mercantile class and the industrial revolution. I will never be able to see the world, never even be able to distinguish between right and wrong except through the distorting lenses of my own class interests. Now the time has come for the class of the little brown men. I step aside for them. I pat them on the shoulder as they go by and wish them well. I am ready to be swept aside by the giant, impersonal wave of history. Into the ashcan of history with me. The best a sane man can do in these times is surrender with dignity and grace. Grace, that was it. Grace Hemingway would have understood.
That ought to hold them for a while, he said to the ceiling. It takes time to clean out the mind. The little brown men should show a little sympathy for him. But he didn’t expect the little brown men to really understand him. His only hope was that by surrendering to them, he would be left alone to write his music. He didn’t expect the little brown men to like or even listen to it. But maybe in three or four generations, when their bitterness had subsided, some little brown musical historian would uncover his work and it would be played. It was a poor kind of immortality to hope for. Beethoven would have scorned it. But in these times, a man had to take what he could get.
The sound of music startled him. And then he realized that it was his wife playing her cello to sooth the baby. Automatically, his mind catalogued the sound, the largo from Bach’s sixth suite for unaccompanied cello. It was one of the pieces his wife was to play at her conservatory recital.
He signed the articles of surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri. General MacArthur was there and Admiral Nimitz and even old Bull Halsey. They stood together in their crisp khaki uniforms, hard sunburned men who disdained even to look at him. John Wayne was there with his son, Patrick. John Wayne was looking at him as though he were a renegade white man who had joined up with the Apaches. What a cowardly thing to do, John Wayne seemed to be saying. What an unmanly thing to be doing! The little brown men, who swarmed so thickly over the deck of the ship they seemed to be a sea of black pyjamas, still kept a respectful distance from John Wayne and two colt ’44s he wore at his hips. The little brown men pushed the articles of surrender at him across a plain wooden table. Without even bothering to read them he signed.
He felt very tired now. It was the pleasant physical weariness of a job well done. He rolled over, found a cool spot on the pillow and fell asleep.
Stein, David Lewis. “The Night of the Little Brown Men.” Saturday Night Mar. 1967: 29–31. Repr. in City Boys. Ottawa: Oberon, 1978. 97–120.