An archeologist, while rummaging among the ruins of our fallen civilization, met a ghost from the long dead race of Americans. The wraith boasted much about what we had been as a people.
We died in the hundreds of thousands to end slavery here and around the world.
We invented Jazz.
We wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg address.
We went to the moon to see how far we could hit a golf ball.
We lifted a telescope into orbit that could see to the edge of the universe.
When people snuck into the country against our laws, we made parking lots and food stands off to the side of the road so they wouldn’t get hurt, and we let them use our hospitals for free, and we made their children citizens.
We didn’t care what God you worshipped as long as we could worship ours.
We let the People arm themselves at will. Just to make sure.
We gave everybody the vote.
We built Disneyworld. Just for fun.
We had a revolution so successful it was still going strong two and a quarter centuries later.
We had so many heroes, even at the end, that we felt free to hate them and burn them in effigy.
We electrified the guitar.
We invented a music so compelling that it rocked the world.
The archeologist asked, “If you accomplished all of this, then why did your nation collapse?” The ghost answered, “Because we went insane.”
The ghost took a breath and said, “We traded beauty for ugliness, truth for lies, liberty for comfort, love for indifference, responsibility for frivolity, duty for entertainment, history for sound bites, and children for pleasure. We had gold, but we tossed it aside and replaced it with cleverly designed dross. We turned men into women and women into men and marveled at our new creative power. We stopped looking up to Heaven and began to keep our gaze firmly fixed on the ground. We abandoned the old God for a host of hip, cool and slick new ones.”
“Those new gods turned on us. At first they granted us our every wish. They laughed with us. They danced with us. We all ate, drank and made all sorts of merry. All of us exulted in our power. And then…” Here the ghost stopped for a moment. His mouth was half open as if trying to speak. His body shuddered as it remembered an ancient terror. “But there were some among us who felt something was wrong, dreadfully wrong.”
“They warned us, you know. They begged us to cease our national madness and return to the days of our forefathers. At first they were just annoying, and we laughed at them. But they became louder and more insistent, and so we asked our new gods to rid us of the pests. And they did. Our gods simply required that we all get special marks on our bodies, but the pests refused to get them. But soon they began to disappear. Terrifying stories emerged about their fate, but we closed our ears and our eyes. Soon the few that remained ran off to the hills. Sometimes we would hear about them, but mostly they vanished from our memory. We were glad that they were gone, and we all laughed together and rolled with the good times. But…”
“We began to change. Where we had once looked into the mirror and seen men, now we saw animals, beasts in fact. Some of us even seemed to walk on all fours and make animal sounds. We prayed to our gods, and they answered that all was well, that we were becoming as they were, that we were becoming as gods. And then things began to break down.”
“Everything. Our machines, our laws, our finances, our systems of government and trade—they all seemed to rust away and no one any longer understood how they had functioned. There arose among us those who claimed to be able to fix things. They promised they could return us to the good times. We marveled at their speech, their handsomeness, their resumes, their attire. They seemed to be especially blessed by our gods. But something was odd about them.”
“They never smiled. Ever. We thought it was because of their deep concern for us. We believed these men and placed them over us. But things became worse, much worse. Our new rulers demanded more of our treasure and we gave it. Our new rulers demanded more of our children and we surrendered them. Our new rulers demanded that we live only in certain areas, join only certain groups, think only certain things and say only certain words. They said that all of this was necessary for the good of us all. Soon the way we had been just faded away. It seemed that we had always had these men over us, that we had always given them what they demanded. We began to see pictures of these men everywhere, even in our homes, even in our empty churches. More and more of us started to walk on all fours and make the sounds of animals. Those that did looked content.”
“And what about you?” laughed the archeologist as he shook his head. “Did you go on all fours?”
“No. I remained standing until the end.”
“It happened suddenly. There was that knock on my door, a bunch of uniformed men, some yelling. I called upon my wife and children, but they were on all fours braying like donkeys. I began to scream. My best friend across the hall opened his door to see what was happening, but then he went on all fours and started to low. I ran and the men chased me. I made it into the street. Everyone I passed was on all fours. Some were barking and some were cackling. Some were yelping like hyenas. I prayed to the gods that they might save me. But they laughed, and it was an odd sound, like the laughter of demons. There was pain like shafts of heat passing through me, a rush of warm liquid, and then all was darkness. And now I am here walking among these ruins and talking to you.”
The archeologist thought for a bit, and then leaned into the ghost and asked him in a lowered voice, almost a whisper, “So what about those old stories of Heaven and Hell? Are they true?”
“Yes. They are true.”
The man’s eyes grew wide. “Then where did you go when you died?”
“I was shown both of them. In Hell there were still all those images of our rulers. And everyone there was on all fours and making animal sounds. In Heaven I saw men walking and speaking. And there was music. I had forgotten what music sounded like. And there were none of those images.”
“Then why did you not stay?”
“I was told to come here and warn you.”
“Warn me? About what?”
But the ghost was silent. He smiled and seemed to be slowly backing away from the archeologist. At last he just faded away.
The man stood for a moment, shuddered and then walked away from the ruins. On the way home he saw the same things he had always seen, but now for the first time in memory they shocked him—streets covered with images of the rulers, lines upon lines of people on all fours making the sounds of animals, rust everywhere. He stared at the mark on his hand, and tried to rub it off. But it would not come off, it would never come off.
And all around him was heard the laughter of demons.