The People of the Pale

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Yesterday — was it only yesterday? —
We came back from the People of the Pale.
The compound where they live is hidden away
So that few now have heard of their strange tale.

My father, who is the Commissioner
For all Wild Life Reserves, took me along;
Because the race is dying out, we were
To see, he said, the last of an old song.

The loneliest place in Asia, one would say,
Preserves these remnants of archaic men.
We went by air first, travelling north all day
Over vast wastes of tundra, lake and fen.

Then fifty kilometres of spruce and pine,
Through which the road ran straight without a curve
To gates in a high fence which bore a sign:
FORBIDDEN ZONE: Keep Out! White Race Reserve.

My father, of course, was greeted by the Head
Keeper, at whose house we spent the night,
I asked him, just before we went to bed:
“What does it mean by saying those people are white?

“Everyone knows the human race is brown
Are they albinos? Is it a disease?
Is it catching, Dad?” — He answered with a frown,
“No, nothing like that — far stranger than all these.

“But no more questions now. High time for bed
For you, my dear; indeed, for both of us;
But keeper has papers here that must be read
Before I sleep, and questions to discuss.”

I could not sleep that night for a great wind
Which made the forest roar with sullen rage.
I found it horrible to imagine white
Men, white women, a white girl of my age.

So after breakfast, when the Keeper said:
“All ready?”, I said, “I think I will not go.”
He laughed: “The white giants, miss? Don’t be afraid,
They are a gentle sort of folk, you know.

You will see them in their village, they number now
Only a couple of hundred at the best,
Having lost the will to live — Your father, though,
I understand prefers to tell the rest.”

White Giants! that was a shock! Indeed they reared
Over real men more than two metres tall;
And their pale skins were ghastly, but really weird,
The most unnerving thing, the worst of all

Were their strange eyes — imagine, they were blue!
Unlike the human eye’s soft, lucid brown,
Their ice-blue glances seemed to pierce me through;
Blue lakes that drew me in and sucked me down.

Their huts were built of logs and thatched with reeds.
One had a tower from which a bell tolled loud
To summon their men and women — I must needs
Add that I saw few children in the crowd.

The great, blond creatures came and drifted round
And stood to listen indifferently, they had
A listless air, and, when they spoke, the sound
Was hollow; their gaunt, pale cheeks were drawn and sad.

Their speech was an odd, murmuring noise; it felt
Like echoes relayed from the archaic past.
The Keeper interpreted as my father dealt
With their requests and I — I stared aghast

At creatures so unnaturally fair:
The long straw-coloured beards among the men —
The women were worse with blanched and braided hair;
There was a girl too, maybe nine or ten

Who seemed already a little above my height
(And I am sixteen and considered tall)
Smiling at me; but, for that leprous white,
In spite of myself, I could not smile at all.

I am sorry for that; watching those waxen ears,
That mouth, a red gash in the freckled skin,
I realised when the blue eyes filled with tears,
She had touched me by that cheerful, childish grin.

After the meeting we saw their tilth and sward;
It was incredible: we saw them plough
With horse-drawn instruments the Keeper averred
Had been in use ten thousand years ago.

They took my father hunting while I saw
Around their village and some scattered farms;
In each hut was a lamp that burned before
A pictured woman with a babe in arms.

Time passed: I felt my first disgust recede
And yield to pity, much to my surprise.
They showed such dignity in word and deed
And such profound despair in their sad eyes.

So that when Keeper came, I could not wait
To ask my father what their story was.
But after dinner I had to sit up late
While he conferred with Keeper and because

It seemed we were to leave next day at dawn;
But when he came I had to hear their tale:
“Who are they, Dad? Why are they so forlorn?
Why are they called the People of the Pale?”

He smiled and took my hand beside the fire
“I see they have won your sympathy, my dear.
So briefly — since we both must soon retire —
I shall try to make their curious story clear.

“Well, child, you know your history; but there lies
A period before history begins,
Half archeology and half surmise —
The lost age of the People with White Skins.

“The current theory, for what it may be worth,
Is that there was a White Race, long ago,
Whose culture dominated the whole earth.
— Ours was comparatively late and slow —

“They were a turbulent folk and, in the end,
Destroyed themselves and half the world by war.
The Dark Age followed. Well, we don’t pretend
To know much of it or what went before.

“When history starts, three thousand years ago,
With the Great African Empire, there were still
Large bands of white men, wandering to and fro,
The Pale-face Nomads, they were called. They fill

“No page in history: the next thousand years
Saw them become extinct. There is no doubt
Their white genes were recessive; it appears
They interbred with us and were phased out.

“A random instance of blue eyes, a case
Of blond hair would crop up long afterwards
— It must be ages now since one took place;
The last white birth no chronicle records.

“For centuries, of course, nobody knew;
The Great White Race had vanished past recall.
Our Brown Race — it seemed obviously true —
And humankind were just identical.

“Until in the last century, pushing forth
To find the limits of this Eurasian plain,
In the vast woods of the uncharted north
Explorers found the lost white race again.

“They were peasant farmers and hunters, very much
As they appear now, obstinate, slow, resigned.
They thought themselves, being so long out of touch,
The only living creatures of their kind.

“They called themselves the buhatir narod
Though what that means is anybody’s guess —
Some say it means the Warriors of God,
But, for such mild folk, that seems foolishness.

“World Council, since they were so pure a stock,
Decided to preserve and fence them in.
Scientists studied their habits round the clock;
Charted the genes that give them their white skin,

“Studied their language, a quite unknown type;
Their kinship patterns; their ethnic heritage.
Folk-lore and legends, till the time seemed ripe
To educate them for the modern age.

“We offered them our culture, the whole range
Of science, our technology, our art:
They turned us down; they did not wish to change
Their way of life at all in any part.

“World Council, of course, accepted their decision
With all that such decisions must entail:
There must be absolute and clear division
Between us and the People of the Pale.

“We see they want for nothing, but year by year
Their numbers dwindle. You ask why should that be?
Because we fenced them in, one cause is clear:
Some species won’t breed in captivity.

“But there are other reasons: though they mate
Quite normally, we notice more and more
Marriages prove infertile — and, of late,
More births malformed than was the case before.

“This and their gigantism are a sign
Of populations too minimal to breed true.
And since, at last, they have crossed that fatal line,
Nothing can save them now that we can do.

“We offered to cross-fertilise them. They
With horror, that scarcely flattered us, to be sure,
Refused, preferring to perish in their own way,
Keeping their stock, like their tradition, pure.

“Well, that’s their tale, girl; in your life perhaps
The tale will end; the Great White Race will be,
After this second and wholly final collapse,
Only a curious, fading memory.”

One thing he added: it seemed appropriate
In view of their strange history, because
This doomed race so determined on their fate,
Worship a dying god nailed to a cross.

Lights out, I stood long staring through the pane
Towards the people out there so soon to die,
Till the dark forest stirred and stirred again,
As though the earth had uttered a long sigh.

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