Because he was no longer a baby, Alva had plenty of chores to do around the house. Each morning, he went to the henhouse and he gathered up all the eggs. Most of the time, he helped to set the table. And sometimes, he went fishing all by himself.
Without a doubt, Alva had several important milestones behind him. But he was still rather young, and he was small for his age. And so, he was not quite ready for the really hard work that waited for him out in the fields.
You see, in Alva's village, all of the grownups worked the soil. The people of his village pounded the stubborn earth until it yielded. They wrestled a crop from the miserly clay. Alva could imagine a fierce tug of war between the farmers and the unyielding soil.
At the end of the day, Alva's parents and his older sister came home with cracked and blistered hands. Looking at their wounds, Alva knew the earth was ornery. It was mule-stubborn. It would only feed those who could pin it down.
Alva was scared to grapple with the wild earth. It was a fear that breathed down his neck at odd times of the day. It was a fear that crept into his dreams at night.
And then, one day, Alva knew what he had to do. He decided to build a machine. He decided to build a machine with fire in its belly and long metal claws. The machine would never grow tired. With mechanical persistence, it would fight on day and night. Summer and winter, it would fight on.
Even the earth had to rest. Even the earth went fallow in the winter. But Alva's relentless machine would never rest. It would attack the soil until the earth yielded all of its bounty.
Alva's machine would tug at the wheat until the earth became cracked and blistered. The people of his village would never be hungry again.
* * *
Alva built his machine at the edge of the village. He worked for hours and hours each day. Sometimes, the fiery machine would scorch Alva's skin. Sometimes, the jagged metal would tear at his clothes. The work was exhausting and loud and even a little dangerous. But Alva was willing to sacrifice.
The people of the village could see that this machine was Serious Business. As Alva's machine took shape, people stopped to admire it. They could feel the heat inside of it. They could see its gleaming metal arms poised for action.
The people of the village grew excited. Everyone wanted to donate whatever was needed to complete the machine. Alva accepted hunks scrap metal and rubber tubes, panes of glass and bits of wire. All of this stuff was lying around. It was there the whole time. But only Alva knew how to put all the pieces together. Only Alva knew how to forge a revolution.
* * *
One morning (just like any other), the people of Alva's village trudged toward their work in fields. Alva stopped them with a shout. "Today!" he called, "From this day forth, you will have a machine to work for you."
Seven years had passed, and Alva was no longer a child. He spoke to the villagers as a peer. "Come and see!" he called.
And they came.
The machine stood at the edge of the village like a faithful dog waiting to be let inside. Only this dog was huge. Over the years, it had become the largest thing in the village. It was bigger than the parish church, bigger than the granary. The machine loomed over them like a cliff, like a great wave about to crash on their shore.
There was a network of hollow pipe at the base of the machine. Half-buried in the stubborn earth, these pipes branched off like roots at the base of tree. The pipes zigged and zagged over the uneven terrain and extended toward every horizon.
With his eyes aglow, Alva walked briskly to one of the nearest villagers. He grabbed the woman by her shoulders and steered her to the great machine. "Go on!" Alva encouraged her. "Tell it what you want."
Feeling self-conscious, the woman looked at the machine and then shifted her gaze back to Alva. "What do I do?" she asked.
"Ask it for anything!" Alva replied. "All you have to do is ask."
The villager laughed nervously. Someone in the crowd shouted, "Go on, ask!" Then there was a murmur of approval. Everyone wanted to see the machine in action. It was up to her.
The villager addressed herself to the machine. "Machine," she began, "give me a basket of wheat." The fire in the belly of the machine roared to life. Smoke rose from the chimneys and darkened the sky. Off in the distance, there was a rattling noise. It grew louder. The noise grew louder still, like something tumbling toward you down a metal well. Clang, clang, ka-clang.
"It's coming from one of those pipes!" someone shouted from the crowd. Everyone took a step away from the machine, as if noisy pipes were a sign of pending danger.
The machine opened its great mouth. There was a blast of hot wind. Out of reflex, everyone closed their eyes. When people opened their eyes once more, they saw a basket of wheat inside the machine.
The crowd cheered this successful demonstration, and the villager stepped forward to retrieve her basket of wheat.
For the rest of that day, people made their requests to the machine. "Give me a basket of wheat! Give me two baskets of wheat! Give me a loaf of bread! Give me a loaf of bread, with sweat butter and strawberry jam!"
All of this was provided. A distant rattle became louder and louder as the desired item worked its way to the mouth of the machine. Then the maw opened. And the item was there.
By the end of the day, there was so much food around that machine that the village decided to hold a feast. The machine even provided everyone with china plates, with slender goblets and with bottles of root beer.
It was a wonderful day: the beginning of a bright new future.
Well, there was one minor complaint. Most people found the sky-darkening smoke dramatic. But some people found it a detriment to breathing. And so Alva agreed to rework the chimneys.
Everyone was very happy.
* * *
Two years later, a small crowd of beggars came to the village. The people were dressed in rags, and the skin along their collarbones looked hollow with need. A few people in the village were will willing to share the machine's bounty. Most of the others were not. The arguments were just what you'd expect.
"If we help these people," someone said, "then we're only inviting others to come after them. I say we draw the line now, so there's no question about who owns the machine. It's for our village and our village only." "The machine is ours," someone else agreed. "Why should my family stand in line behind strangers?" "Yes," added a third voice. "We built it. Rather, Alva built it from the material we supplied. Where were these strangers when we were looking for parts? I say let them build their own machine!"
After a lengthy debate, the village agreed on its proper course of action. A delegation would be sent. The beggars would be told to leave. As a demonstration of their resolve, and to protect themselves from any threat, the delegation would go well-armed.
* * *
With bright flaming torches and long barbed spears, the delegation arrived at the beggar's camp outside of town. "Shove off," the delegation said. "We don't want your kind here."
"Please," said one of the beggars. "I don't think you understand. We were once a wealthy people, too. But your machine is killing us. It steals the bread from our ovens. It has taken our china plates and our long, slender goblets."
"And the chimneys," added another stranger. "Your machine belches smoke into the air above our homes. It darkens the sky and robs our children of breath."
But the delegation didn't listen. With torches and spears, the villagers drove the beggars away.
* * *
Another year passed. The beggars became more desperate — and more numerous. The machine expanded into other lands, siphoning wealth to Alva's village. More and more people saw their goods disappear into the hollow pipes. Soon, they were an army unto themselves.
Armed with clubs and stones, the Beggar's Army came to Alva's village. The villagers were prepared. They had asked the machine for stone walls and for gold coins to hire archers. The fighting went on for weeks. Many, many people were killed.
Don't ask me who won. No one wins.
Injustice leads to war. This is the hidden cost of Alva's Marvelous Machine. All of that bounty comes from somewhere. Someone else is paying for our bargains. The seeds of war are in our possessions.