Christopher Columbus and All That
My daughter was five years old. Sometimes she sat next to me on the couch in the living room, asking questions.
"Daddy, why are Indians in America?"
"I'm going to explain you this," I said. I went to the kitchen to look for some kind of ball to be the earth.
"Well, I've got to do this with a circle." I drew a circle.
"You know what this is?" I said.
"That's a circle," she said.
"Right. That's a circle. But it also could be a ball."
"Ok, a ball."
"And the ball could be the earth. I made a point on top of the circle. "And that's our house."
"Where's Libby's house?" she asked. Libby was her best friend in school.
"All right. Libby's house is a tiny point right next to ours."
"But she lives many blocks away from us."
"That's right. But the earth is so big, that Libby's house is next to ours if the earth is as small as I've drawn it. Now let me go on..."
"Where is our garage?"
"Our garage is really part of the point that is our house. Now, across from us, on the other side of the earth, what do we have there?"
"You are really clever. Now here is America, and over there is Europe, and somewhere between China and Europe is India. Now there was a greedy King in Europe, the King of Spain. He sent out one of his people, whose name was Christopher Columbus--"
"No, Columbus. Christopher Columbus."
"Christopher Robin's daddy?"
"No, they're not related. Anyway, the King of Spain sent him out with his ships to go to India and get as many spices as the ships could carry."
"What are spices?"
"Things like curry, pepper, that make the food taste better. He sent him out to sail to India, that's this way. And you know where he went?"
"He went that way! He went the opposite way. And he went for a long time to cross the ocean, and when he saw land—that's here, where we live—he thought he had reached India."
"But it was really America, right?"
"Right! And he met the people who were living here; the ones who wore moccasins and hunted with bows and arrows. And you know how he called them?"
"Yes, Indians he called them. Do you know why?"
"Well, he thought he had found India, so he called the people who were living there Indians."
"American Indians. Right?"
"No, he called them Indians. He didn't know he was in America. It was all a big mistake."
"Oh. And the Indians threw their bows and arrows at him, right?"
"They got into a lot of fights. Columbus brought other people with him, and later more ships arrived, and they all took the Indians' land away. But the Indians didn't throw their bows and arrows. They used them to shoot. But the White people had something the Indians didn't have. What was that?"
"I know. Plastic!"
"No, guns. The guns were much faster and more accurate than the bows and arrows, and when you have people fighting with each other where one bunch has guns and the other one has bows and arrows..."
"But the guns were made of plastic."
"That's not right. You can only make pretend-guns out of plastic. The real ones are made from steel."
"What is steel?"
"Steel is iron mixed with things that make it very hard. And plastic hasn't been around for a long time."
"I know. When the White people arrived, they dug in the ground and they found plastic-making machines, and the Indians didn't know about them."
"That's a great story, but it didn't happen that way. They didn't know how to make plastic for a long time, and they had to make the plastic-making machines by themselves."
"Daddy, why did the King of Spain want to have spices?"
"To get richer. That's easy to understand. Let's say the ships go to India and get a pound of curry for a quarter."
"Of course, they went that way, to America!"
"That's right. But later, they found the right way to India, and actually got there to get the spices." I took a few pennies out of my wallet.
"Here; they paid a quarter for a pound of spices." I placed a paperclip on India and then traded it in for one of the pennies.
"That's a penny. Don't you see that?"
"Well, we'll call it a quarter for now." I went with the paperclip along the circle until I reached Spain. Here the greedy King of Spain took the paperclip and traded it for four pennies.
"Now see what happened. He got four quarters for something that had only cost him one quarter. It means he made three quarters on the deal. He's got even richer than before."
"And that's good, right. Right, Daddy?"
"No, that's bad. He's already rich enough."
"Daddy, are there any aliens?"
The afternoon was moving on, in tiny steps.
Joachim Frank is a German-born scientist and writer, since 1975 in Albany, New York. He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. He has published several short stories and prose poems in Lost and Found Times, The Agent, Inkblot, Heidelberg Review, Groundswell, Peer Glass, and Open Mic, all in print. Frank wrote three novels, still unpublished. Some of his poems have appeared in the online journal Offcourse. Recently, several pieces of fiction and poetry were accepted for publication online, by elimae, 3711 Atlantic, Cezanne’s Carrot, Brilliant, Raving Dove, and Esoterica. He has also shown photography in regional exhibits. A portfolio of his photographs can be found at Pedro Meyer’s international photogallery zonezero.com.
Photo courtesy of 123rf.
Story Copyright © 2007 Joachim Frank. All rights reserved.