There once was a grain farmer named John, who worked hard on his land and produced 10 tons of grain a year. His wife became annoyed with him, saying, the land was his mistress and that he did not pay enough attention to her.
She took their children and moved to the city.
John’s wife had no income and asked the city to support her because she had children to raise – she was given a house and grain.
At the end of the season an officer from the city came to the farm and without asking took 3 tons of grain, telling John, it was to support his children.
The next day the tax collector arrived and inspected the farmer’s records and saw that the season’s production was 10 tons of grain. The tax collector took 3 tons of grain to satisfy the 30% grain tax.
John knew that he had to sell 6 tons of grain each season for his business to survive. He had only 4 tons left to sell. He complained bitterly to both the officer of the city and the tax collector, telling them he would soon be out of business if this was to continue, but neither would listen.
John was soon bankrupt and his assets were given to his creditors. The once successful farmer became a worker on the land he had previously managed.
Now a labourer, John was careful with his earnings and gave the tax man a payment each week. He did not want trouble with the tax man. He had seen the tax man pick up a stone and it had dripped blood.
At the end of the next season the officer of city came and demanded another 3 tons of grain from John. John told the officer that he no longer had any grain, but the officer told John, that last year he had provided 3 tons of grain, and so he must hand over the same this year.
John complained, telling the officer he was now a labourer not a farmer. The officer did not listen and instead told John for every day he did not produce the required amount of grain a penalty would be added but the officer would not say what the penalty would be.
John told the officer he was still a bankrupt after losing his business and that his debts would be forgiven in time.
Not this debt; this is a debt on your life, the officer told John.
John soon realised that he had no longer had any future; he would never be able to earn enough to pay this debt to the city.
He had heard of another city nearby, so he decided to leave his homeland to start a new life, but as he was leaving he was stopped at the border by the officer of the city.
You have a debt on your life and you cannot leave the officer told John.
I am a citizen and you cannot stop a citizen travelling, John told the officer.
You are not a citizen while you have a debt on your life the officer told John.
If I’m not a citizen I must be a resident, John told the officer.
You’re neither, the officer told John.
“Well if I’m not a citizen or a resident, what is my status,” asked John.
“Best you get back to work, the penalties are adding up,” said the officer of the city.
John was now too old to be a farm labourer, and nobody wanted to hire him anymore – he had no choice but to move to the city. He didn’t like the city but he hoped he could find work there.
The officer of the city always seemed to know where he was, and called on him once a month demanding the grain he owed the city, always checking to see that he wasn’t hiding anything that could be traded for grain.
He now owed the city more grain than he had ever produced in his best year.
Work was hard to find and he often had to stand in the grain cue for a daily ration of grain to feed himself. There were other old grain farmers there who lost their farms too; some like him had children in the city. Some knew where their children were, while others, like John, had no idea where they had gone.
There were other workers, some who had never had children. It annoyed the fathers that the officer of the city was always there, pointing out those workers who had children so a share of their daily grain could be put aside for the officer of the city, while those that weren’t fathers got to keep their whole ration. The father’s argued amongst themselves as to whether this was fair or not.
There was one really thin old man, whose son would wait nearby. His mother swapped her grain for perfume and clothes in the hope of attracting a rich man, so the father would give his son half his grain so he wouldn’t starve. The other fathers were always suspicious, often saying to each other that the boy didn’t look anything like the old man.
John was quite sure it was better he didn’t know where his three children were, how would they survive on a quarter of a ration each once the officer had taken a share for the city?
At night the grain farmers would gather in the hostel for the night and talk about the price of grain before their wives and children had left, and what it might have been like if their sons had followed in their footsteps, while others would talk in hushed tones of plots to kill the officer of the city, although they weren’t sure that would change anything, and could never agree who had the best plot.
If it hadn’t been for the warm summer’s night, it all might have seemed quite a pointless existence. It was the sort of night that was light enough to take a walk for some peaceful reflection on life – as it had been, was now, and might be.
It was one such evening when three children came to the hostel looking for their father. They were told on nights like this John usually sat by the river watching the moonlight dancing on the rippling shallows.
The children had no idea what John looked like, so they called his name, but there was no answer. They found a man hanging from a tree. There was no one else about so they guessed it might be John.
The others had only known him as John, so they couldn’t tell the children for sure that it was their father.
“Ask the officer of the city,” they said. “He’ll know for sure.”
It was a small funeral, mostly the grain farmers from the hostel.
The children sat with their mother, listening intently to the few men that got up and spoke about John, hoping they might hear a little about the father they never knew.
The three boys had only ever known what their mother had told them, that he was married to the land and not to her, although they didn’t quite understand how that worked.
Their mother was always telling them that she would see that they did not grow up to be like their father, and when they got married they would give their wives the best the city had to offer.
The mother had pointed out the two men in uniform when they had arrived. The boys knew the officer of the city, but not the administrator – according to mother he was the one they had to see.
Mother had told the boys that their father had grain assurance, and now that he was dead, they would not need to be given grain by the city – there would more grain than they could imagine – enough to last them all a life time.
After the funeral the family was surprised when the officer of the city said he would call next week with their grain as usual, and they went immediately to the administrator asking after John’s will.
Yes, the grain assurance is all that remains of John’s productive life the administrator told them – he was bereft of any other worldly goods unfortunately.
Who would benefit from his estate, the mother asked the administrator.
His children of course, had there been anything left once I paid the officer of the city what was due.
But the grain assurance is more than I have received from the city, complained the mother. We should receive the grain assurance and repay the city what we took and keep the rest for ourselves.
The administrator was quick to disagree and reminded the mother of the piece of paper she had signed the first time she had met with the officer of the city.
He also reminded her she had agreed to the grain payment for the undertaker.
“So, there’s nothing to be had of the grain assurance,” complained the mother with both bitter voice and startled look.
“There’s a modest amount which I shall retain. You’ll understand, we all need our grain.”
“You can collect John’s ashes next week, if you wish. That is all that remains of the man now,” said the administrator … “that and his wish as best I can recall ‘to die in peace, without debt around his neck, the life slowly strangling from his very existence, like a grain of wheat never allowed to grow’.”