The Breakdown

John Anderson’s (Mis)Fortune


Even though I was only the second Human to emigrate permanently to Thorgelfayne, the Homelanders did not hesitate to make me welcome. I received quite a lot of gifts and honors, but none was as nice as the gift I received from the United Republic of Fjarn.

Fjarn is a major world economic power, and it is one of our beloved Duchy’s neighbors. It has a population of two hundred fifty million, and covers a good fourth of this continent. My gift: a brand new automobile! It’s the latest model: a ’98 Snitt Runabout. It is a lovely two-tone gray and black sports car that would certainly turn heads back in my old home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Snitt, by the way, is a very common surname in Fjarn. (Imagine! No matter where I go, I leave in a Snitt!)

So the day I was to become a naturalized Thorgelfaynese, I was tooling along the interprovincial highway, enjoying the view. I had just left Bobo’s office, and I wanted to check on my Hugmup at home before I went to the naturalization ceremony back in the city.

I especially like the stretch between Hapdorn proper and the suburb where I live. The road makes a graceful curve around the edge of the valley, and you get a spectacular view of Hapdorn in the mountains and the valley below. It was late afternoon, and the sun was in my eyes; so I adjusted the visor. When I looked back down, all the lights on the dashboard were turning red! The engine cut out, and the car coasted powerlessly as I steered it to the side of the road.

Drat. That’s all I need! I don’t know a thing about Homelander cars, except how to drive them and where to put in the fuel. In fact, I don’t even know what they use for fuel. I always assumed it was some petroleum product, but now that I think about it, I’m not sure.

I managed to open up the engine compartment by following the instructions in the owner’s manual, but the mechanism there was certainly beyond me. It looked very sleek and well-designed, I’ll give you that; but it is certainly nothing I would have expected.

Now what, I thought. I’ll be late for my own naturalization ceremony! I started to walk back along the side of the road, but the going was rough. When you’re just driving along, the grass looks neatly mowed, but when you get out and walk on it, it’s quite different. The grass is bit higher than it looks, and the ground is uneven; filled with sticks, rocks and holes. By the time I get back, my new shoes will be all scraped up, and my pants will be stained from the weeds.

Several cars whizzed by, but one stopped! The driver rolled down the window and offered me a ride back to Hapdorn. I was too grateful to be astonished at this kindness, and accepted the honor.

“You must be one of the Humans,” he ventured.

“Why, yes I am! How did you know?”

“That should be pretty obvious, now shouldn’t it? Your skin is pale and your accent is pretty strange.” He indicated a newspaper. “But I cheated. I saw your picture!” I got in, closed the door; and we started out.

It was the first time he ever met a real alien from outer space, he confided. We chatted pleasantly, and the twenty-minute drive was over in a flash. By the time we arrived back at the university, we had exchanged phone numbers and had promised to keep in touch.

Lanni (Bobo’s secretary) was still in the office! She was just getting ready to go to the ceremony, so she was as surprised to see me as I was relieved to see her. I had tried to go home to check on my Hugmup, but now there was no time left. Lanni assured me that the Hugmup would be just fine by himself. She grabbed her car keys, and we left.

A huge surprise awaited me at the courthouse! Several hundred people were gathered in an auditorium and were waiting for us! Both of the Humans were going to become Thorgelfaynese today, so I had expected no more than a dozen or so people present. I thought I would just raise my right hand, swear some oath before a magistrate, and receive a certificate. I understood that was the normal procedure, but it’s apparently a little more complicated than that. Maybe it’s because Humans are choosing to become Thorgelfaynese—I don’t know.

The other Human (forgive me, I barely know him and can’t remember his name) was there with his Thorgelfaynese wife. The three of us went up the aisle to the front of the auditorium, and faced the magistrate who was standing behind an ornate podium. Behind him were other officials, and a steel drum band dressed in traditional Thorgelfaynese costume.

Now before I go any further, I have to explain some things. The Thorgelfaynese word thorgel means ‘friend,’ and fayne means ‘bond’ and it is also a suffix which is added to names of some countries. So Thorgelfayne is archaic Thorgelfaynese for land of the friends. Of course, every culture on Homeland considers Friendship to be one of the cardinal virtues; but there is an historical reason why Thorgelfayne has this particular name.

Thorgelfayne was founded in the 39th hexacentury (that’s thousands of years ago!) as a tribal confederation, after a period of bitter disputes over farming and trade. The tribes met at the present site of Hapdorn, and swore an eternal oath of mutual aid and friendship. Disputes among the tribes were then decided by schoolteachers and philosophers. This led to the present technocratic form of government, and it explains why the Thorgelfaynese public holds education in such high regard. The Covenanters selected a leader (duke is the closest Human equivalent), and sought to spread the Covenant of Friendship (the thorgel bond, or thorgelfayne) to include as many surrounding tribes as possible. The borders of the nation spread as far north as the Lake, but were hemmed in on other sides by geography and by other nations. Thus it is that our beloved Duchy is known as the Imperial Duchy of Thorgelfayne—though that may sound strange to Human ears.

While we Humans were standing in the center aisle facing the magistrate, a stern young man in archaic Thorgelfaynese costume stood up from his seat in the back of the stage, marched authoritatively to the podium and slapped his hand firmly on it. (This must have been the light switch, because we were instantly plunged into total darkness.) A woman shrieked in the back of the auditorium, sending chills up my neck. I turned involuntarily to see what was wrong before I realized it was part of the ceremony.

From somewhere in the audience, four or five voices began to shout, “Our sons, our daughters, our wives and our husbands die at the hands of our foolish strife. Let us end our strife and become friends!” Most of the audience joined in.

A delicious shudder came over me as I realized that all Thorgelfaynese present were remembering and learning from their history, and participating in the Covenant of Friendship anew.

At this point a small child walked slowly across the stage to the podium, carrying a candle. She handed it to the magistrate and said, “Friendship is a weak and fragile thing. It brings light into the mind, hope into the soul, and peace into the heart. Friendship is a strong, enduring bond.”

The lights went up gradually. The magistrate smiled jovially and asked us if we would adopt the heritage of the Friends (thorgel). We each in turn said that we accept, in equal measure, the shame and the joy of Thorgelfaynese heritage. He asked us if we would swear to uphold the Thorgel Bond; and with emotion-choked voices, we did so swear.

Then we all sang the national anthem, but you don’t know what a wonderful national anthem it is! It is traditionally played by a steel drum band, just like in the Caribbean Sea region on Earth. The musicians were in native costume (awfully heavy clothing for this time of year) and played their drums with evident skill and obvious pride. It is a stirring, beautifully nostalgic song which thrills me to the very core… and I’ve never liked patriotic songs. Everyone, from ordinary subject right on down to the Duke, loves this song.

O Thorgelfayne! My native land,
with lovely mountain vistas grand;
I love the Lakeshore’s glistening strand
For all your people are my friends

My clumsy translation, and my efforts to reproduce the poetic form, can only be regarded as a failure. Until you learn Thorgelfaynese yourself, you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s a beautiful song.

Well, everything went fine until the climax of the national anthem. (Remember, this is the first time I’ve heard it done properly!) Now the steel drums didn’t bother me, I’ve always loved the sound… but when the yodeling started, I cracked up! I laughed so hard I fell on the floor. I couldn’t breathe but I couldn’t stop laughing either. Imagine! Steel drums and yodeling! (Thorgelfayne is a very mountainous country, at least in the southern part, so the yodeling makes a lot of sense.) Fortunately for me, everyone assumed I was just happy to become a Thorgelfaynese, and they joined in with laughter and applause.

Somebody helped me up, and with only a few after-shocks of irrepressible chuckles, I was able to go on. The magistrate congratulated us on our new status, and presented us with certificates, signed by the Duke himself.

What an evening! There was a wonderful reception given in our honor by the Human Boosters League. I had a great time. I have never in my life been hugged by so many people! We had to improvise a press conference for all the reporters who were present. The entire ceremony was beamed by satellite to forty-three countries all over the globe! The reporters stood out in the crowd because most of them were white or oriental-looking. As of this evening, all but two Thorgelfaynese are black.

It was nearly thirty-one o’clock before we were able to break away, so I missed myself on the late news.

Lanni drove me back along the Tha-37 to find my car. It was sitting just where I left it, apparently unharmed. I trudged towards it in the heavy grass. The air was humid and full of heady perfume; the insects chirped softly in the woods. Only the two little moons were out. As I got closer, I saw that my car was in perfect shape!

“Now that really goes to show how great it is to be in Thorgelfayne!” I said expansively, still giddy from the surprise ceremony, “I know cities on Earth where an abandoned car would have been stripped and up on blocks by now!” I had to explain that phenomenon to Lanni, who found it hard to believe.

I opened the driver’s door to get the Concluding Symposium on the Meaning of Life from the back seat, when I noticed a piece of paper under the windshield wiper. Drat! I thought to myself. Now I’ve got a ticket! I slammed the door and grabbed the paper.

Lanni saw me just standing there, “What’s it say?”

I glanced back at Lanni, who was silhouetted before the glittering panorama of Hapdorn’s city lights in the distance. “I don’t believe it!” I whispered. “Somebody fixed my car!”

Her only reaction was that things like that are bound to happen to you if you go around abandoning your car.

I love this place!

I slipped into the driver’s seat and tried to start it. It still didn’t work. Since I had not left the key in it, my would-be mechanic couldn’t try out the repair. So I still had to call a tow truck in the morning.

Bobo, if Ken plays this tape for you, I am healthy and happy and a very proud new subject of the Duke of Thorgelfayne! I owe you my life, my happiness, and my eternal gratitude for all you’ve done. Thank you, Bobo!

[John said a few more things to Bobo in Thorgelfaynese, which of course I can’t understand. Bobo told me he was impressed with John’s mastery of the language, though he still has traces of an accent. Then John ended the tape with something that made Bobo chuckle. “What was so funny?” I asked. Bobo replied that John ended the tape the way you normally end a letter—“Yours in thorgel bond, John.” ]