At the mouth of town, there is a sign that seems even larger because nothing surrounds it but dusty flatlands on either side of a dusty flat road. The sign is faded as if forgotten, but it seems equally plausible that the sign has fallen prey to the same fate befallen on the town itself, and the surrounding towns like it. Time has not been kind to this part of the world; it’s evident in the shuttered shops and the barren fields.
But what the sign lacks in polish, it makes up for in character. On it is a portrait of the town mayor, a portly man, whose eyes seem stitched into his face like a teddy bear. A speech bubble emanates from his likeness and lays out the five commandments of the town of Cowardville.
- When faced with the hard thing, do the easy thing. It’s the right thing. It’s easy, isn’t it?
- No fighting or arguments; if you have a different opinion on something than the person next to you, change the subject, or walk away.
- Your family is not more important than the family next door; defending them doesn’t give you a pass. If your family is in danger, don’t protect them at all costs.
- Don’t work harder than you need to, don’t push yourself harder than you need to; don’t do anything that feels uncomfortable for the sake of something you think you need.
- Truth is an illusion; it’s only meant to make you feel better. Ask yourself, do you need to tell the truth or do you need to keep the peace? It’s a trick question; you need to keep the peace, of course.
As if to explain itself, the sign ends with a statement:
The world is killing itself and burning itself down. We need more cowards.
Today, the town is no different than a western movie set; a relic of a time that once was and is no longer relevant for much more than curiosity. As I mentioned, the town itself is not worse off than the surrounding ones, but it does garner more interest than the ones around. After all, if history is written by the victors, it often features wars so victors have something to brag about. History isn’t kind to cowards, and here it was in bold display, an ode to cowardice.
The town is still occupied, even if not by the original cast that pioneered the town’s motto. Even so, there is enough bloodline left to hear stories carried through the times, buffed and prodded, so you weren’t really sure what version of reality you were hearing. The town square still stands in the center of town, as it might have back in the day. Twice a day, a man wearing a cape and round glasses stands at the square and reminds everyone why the town square existed.
“The square is a place to collect and do things together we don’t need to do alone. Celebrate, grieve, learn, dance. But where other town squares were used to air grievances and order lynchings, our town square never saw all that. It was a place of peace because violence had no place here. No crimes were committed that needed to be tried and judged. No wars fought and won or lost. Our town, our square was a place of peace.”
He echoed the tale with a bragadociousness that seemed out of place in a barren town. A more cynical perspective could be heard at the local bar, the only place you’d find more than three townsmen at a time. The bar offered a locally brewed extra hoppy ale, and arak, a local liquor. Based on the taste, you’d think outsiders were unwelcome, but the bartender was not shy with his pours. A large man with a proud beard, he minced no words.
“The government was draftin for the war and we didn’t to lose our young men to it. It was actually the women of the town who all banded together, sayin’ why do we got to lose our men, our husbands and sons, to a war we got nothin’ to do with. The mayor’s son stood up then and said, well aren’t we cowards then? If we chose not to fight on the battlefield. The mayor’s wife, for whom her son was her reason to live, couldn’t bear the thought of him entering a bloody field. She shouted out, then let us be cowards. The world needs cowards. Pretty soon, the crowd was chanting, the world needs cowards.”
He stopped to refill the glass of a local who was on his fourth hour at the bar at two in the afternoon. It took the bartender a few minutes to get back to the other side of the bar, as large as he was. This side was reserved for curious tourists, so he could regale them with tales that didn’t bore the locals silly.
“Look, the world was killin’ itself and it still is. What would happen if we all said we would sit out the war? Ain’t no war without fighters. But then,” he paused as if finishing the sentence in his own mind, “it got out of hand. This whole we are cowards thing took on a life of its own. We got a lot of press for it and the mayor was suddenly in newspapers all over the country. The mayor’s son who had the keenness for war, suddenly saw a way to get famous without an ounce of sweat or blood and boy did he take it. He married his own aunt by the way, his mother’s sister, can ya believe it? Maybe that’s why men go to wars, so they don’t just become momma’s boys.”
There was a long pause where he refilled more glasses. The briny scent of the arak mixed with the dust mites floating in the air. A liquor-laced haze hung low in the air, giving the bar a quality of being trapped in a dream.
“I guess, war or no war, man is always willing to get something at the expense of others. Our mayor got famous and rich, we ain’t see none of that. The town went the same way as the towns around us, whose men went to war and weren’t here to till the fields and harvest the crops. We lost a war we didn’t fight. That’s cowardly alright.”