The Squirrel Seller

Khalid rubbed the dusty and sunburned bridge of his nose and tried not to glare in disgust. The man before him was aged, and perhaps not quite right in the head. The Prophet taught the virtue of compassion for the aged and the infirm, even if they were assholes. This particular asshole may have stood tall just a few decades before, and a small ring of blubber around his midriff suggested he might have been portly at the every least. Khalid could imagine him waddling about an almost-forgotten green and verdant golf course, relics of cool and wet times. Now he was as dessicated and worn as the sun-and-wind blasted lands in which they lived.

“I have no interest in your squirrels,” Khalid explained patiently. “Half the people within a day’s journey of here have squirrel farms, including myself.” He pointed to a board behind him. The board read “Fresh water: One liter for one cat. One half liter per chicken. One liter for one kilo of edible nuts, fruits, tubers. One liter for small dog, two for medium (10-30 kg) three for a large.”

He tapped the board meaningfully. “No squirrels. No chipmunks. No rats. No rodents of any kind. Everyone has all they can eat, and then some. Bring me a live turkey, and I’ll give you three liters. I’ll give you twelve liters for a tom.”

“I don’t have any toms.” The supplicant, bald but for a few straggled wisps about the ears, sagged, the very picture of abject misery.

Khalid, burdened with the idealism of youth, might have been a bit more sympathetic, but the man had a long history of lying, cheating, and flat-out swindling. He often had contracted with someone, receiving a good or service, and then sneering and simply stiffing the person with whom he had made his agreement. If pressed, he would offer coins of silver or gold, arguing that their value easily exceeded that of the food or water or labor he had received. In theory, that was true, but people had discovered that they could not eat gold and silver, and everyone was desperately clinging to survival and couldn’t be bothered with jewelry and ornaments.

The Prophet’s Law taught that the visitor should be afforded amenities and courtesies, and that to turn away a beggar was shameful, and to do so to a man incapable of caring for himself was a deep disgrace. Outside of the conclave lay only dust and heat and the rapidly decaying ruins of what had, just twenty years before, been a prosperous suburb with cars and trees and running water. A young and vigorous man armed with knowledge and quick wits might survive in the deserts of Maryland, but this old wreck was not young, nor vigorous, and it was doubtful he ever possessed knowledge or quick wits.

Some of the residents argued that he should be expelled anyway. He was a thief. He was also a braggart, a conceited blowhard who demanded respect he had done nothing to earn, boasting of great wealth and power, and had even been known to use such sad flourishes to bully some of the village children. At least once he had been beaten, when his hand brushed against a woman’s breast once too often for it to be mere coincidence.

The beggar glared. “Someone told you not to take my squirrels. I will find him, and he’ll pay. Believe me. He’ll pay.”

“No one told me not to take your squirrels. I don’t take any squirrels. I can’t sell them, I can’t trade them, and I don’t need them for food. Come back with some cloth, or unbroken glass, and I will treat with you.”

“You are a poor businessman. You have goods to trade, I have goods to trade. What is the problem?”

“You need my goods. I don’t need yours.”

“I could make better use of them than you.”

Khalid ignored the jibe. “But I have no need of your goods. The art of the deal is based on the value perceived by each party, resulting in a trade.”

“Who taught you that shit? Look, these are fine squirrels. The best squirrels. I raised them like they were my own children. Believe me, you will never regret buying these squirrels.”

Khalid glanced into the cage, where a half dozen dusty and disheveled rodents resided. One blinked at him slowly with rheumy eyes, and another appeared to be in the throes of an epileptic seizure. The beggar gestured at them, beaming with pride. “These are quality squirrels.”

“If you raised your children like you raised these poor creatures, it would explain why your children are not helping you in your dotage.”

“Those swine.” The old man spoke without passion or conviction, but spat precious bodily fluid into the dust. “They abandoned me in my hour of greatest need. I was a great father, the best father, and they turned away from me. They were disloyal!” Now the beggar’s voice rose, and his eyes flashed. “Disloyal!”

Khalid sighed. This was a well-worn recording. Left uninterrupted, the screed would expand, until Earth’s once-teeming billions had all risen up in conspiracy and envy to destroy this man. And indeed, Khalid had heard reports that had civilisation not collapsed in 2019, this man might well have been in prison today, along with his wives and children. If any of his family remained alive, Khalid thought. It was little wonder they would eschew this vile man.

Khalid’s patience was at an end in the sweltering day. He rose from his seat, towering over the old man, who shrunk in on himself, revealing a personal cowardice.

“Look, enough is enough. I have told you what I am willing to trade fresh, clean water for. If you cannot find items of value, you can drink from the river everyone else drinks from. It won’t kill you.”

“But it’s scummy and tastes bad,” the beggar whimpered. “Do you have any idea who I am? I am the most important man in the world! You can’t make me drink bad water!” His eyes glittered, whether from self-pity or calculation Khalid couldn’t tell.

This, too, was a familiar tack in the squabble. The man would describe how he had smote nations, and punished the parasitic poor. It was a bloody canvas of greed and avarice and vainglory, and Khalid had no desire to sit through the demented diatribe.

He slapped his hands on the rough-hewn counter, and again the beggar shrank back, quailing.

“Look, Donald,” Khalid growled, using the beggar’s name for emphasis. “One last time.”

He pointed to the board. “This is what I want for my water. Produce that, or leave.

“And don’t waste my time telling me how powerful you once were.

“The fact is, I don’t care what you were President of.”

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