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The Ship of Fools

Translated by Jenny Rogers

  Stop 1        Arrival

Once upon a time, a ship manned by a crew of Fools sailed from far away across the wide wide waters into a new port.
"Where are we?" asked the Fools.
"You're in Switzerland!" came the answer. "Welcome!"
"Yes, but ..?" wondered the Fools, "... isn't your town full already?" 
"Oh, don't worry! There's lots of room. And if it were full up, we would build new houses. But what about you - where are you from?"
"We're the Fools, because we believe in 'silly' things."
"Oh yes. Like what, for example?"
"Like love, loyalty, goodness and honesty; wine and music, honey and milk, play and desire. Most of all, though, we believe in our good fortune!" 
"And who's that black man there?"
"That's Earnest. He lives with us, because he thinks people don't like us."
"What rubbish!" said the Swiss. "You can see we like you!"
"Yes, you say that now, but just wait!" replied Earnest.
"And that beautiful young woman in her snow-white dress?"
"She's the Virgin, the Queen of the Fools. She's waiting for her true love."

Stop 2         Children

"It makes us sad to see you", said the townsfolk to the Fools.
"But why?" asked the Fools.
"Because your ship is overflowing with children, and here in our town, nearly everyone is old. Our young couples say they don't want any children, but it's the other way round in truth: the children don't want to go to them anymore."
"That's not true!" answered the Fools: "We're here now, with all these children."
"No, we didn't mean strange children, we meant children of our own."
"Ah," said the Fools thoughtfully.
"Yes," sighed the old people, "We're so lonely without children. Sometimes we think we're to blame for our bad luck. And it gets worse every day. The few children that are still born here come into the world looking old already, and full of wrinkles!"
"Well, it's a good thing to think about things," said the Fools, "but put your worries aside for a moment and be happy with us now that we're here. By the way: none of these children were born on our ship. They all joined us in other ports. So don't be sad any more. We'll build you a Happiness Machine. Bring us all the junk you don't need any more - we'll use it to build your Happiness Machine."

Stop 3         The Happiness Machine

The next day, when the people saw the strange-looking Happiness Machine standing in the middle of the marketplace, they had to smile and laugh. It clanked and squeaked and made funny jerking movements, and jumping around at the top was a fool called Felix, who was a great builder and inventor. He spent all his time repairing the broken parts and adding all the old things which people kept bringing from all over the town: TVs, computers, old toy trains, curling tongs, kitchen mixers, puppets, pedal cars, fridges, half a piano and even a dead cat's favourite scratching tree. There was a constant flow of other things, too, all of which Felix breathed new life into. The whole town met up around the Happiness Machine. People stared and talked and sang and ate and generally had a good time. Starting from the top of the Machine there was a giant slide which ran through the streets and over the roofs of the town and ended at the lake, where the children splashed in. Lots of adults, and even a few brave elderly people had a go, too. It was a very special, Fountain of Youth Slide. And the fantastic thing was, it actually worked! The very same day, children were born again in the town. Real babies, with rosy cheeks. And suddenly children of all ages who had been completely forgotten started popping up everywhere, out of nowhere - and all the benches in the school rooms were full again. 
But there were grumpy, resentful people with very deep lines and wrinkles in the town, too, who stood around the Happiness Machine complaining: "It smells horrible," they said, or: "It makes such a racket, it looks untidy, it's useless, pointless and, above all, dangerous. The stupid thing could collapse and injure us." 
And Black Earnest stood by them, shaking his head: 
"It's not working!" 
The doubters and pessimists had been waiting for him to say just that:
"Listen!" they cried, "even your Earnest says it's not working!" But Earnest simply replied: "It's not because of the Happiness Machine that it's not working; it's because of you!" 
But no one heard.

Stop 4          The Battle on the Lake

Like people everywhere, the people in the town where the Fools had landed had their woes and worries. "You've got it so good", said the townspeople sadly to the Fools, "no one can take anything away from you. But they can from us. We have mighty enemies lying in wait for us out there because we have such a beautiful town, and own so many things. We've even heard they're planning to attack us from the lake tonight, to take everything away from us."
"They're a bit like you, then." replied the Fools.
"How do you mean?"
"Simple. They love your high mountains, your delicious cheese, your blue lakes, your ports, your villages and your towns - everything about you, in fact."
"But they don't love us!" complained the town dwellers.
"Perhaps they do. It's just that sometimes, it doesn't look like love. But don't be afraid. We'll help you."
"You? You're all mouth! What can you do against their cannons! Don't be ridiculous."
"That's why we call ourselves the Fools!"

And the Fools did help them: they sailed out alone against the town dwellers' enemies and ran into a storm and the terrible smoke of the cannons, and their ship rolled violently from side to side. 
"Bring all the instruments, all the musicians, all the fire-eaters and all the cooks with their pots on deck and make as much noise as you can!" ordered the captain of the Fools' ship. Scared to death by all the din and the light, and thinking that a monster had risen up out of the depths, the attackers sailed off as fast as they could.

There was much cheering and waving in the town, and even the highest town dignitaries came to congratulate the victorious Fools on their return. The town generals also praised the Fools, although they were secretly thinking: "How did the Fools manage that, without any cannons or guns? If we could get Felix to work for us, we would be invincible forever." 
Just afterwards, Felix suddenly disappeared, as if swallowed up by the ground. People whispered that dark figures wearing long coats and broadbrimmed hats had taken him away.

Stop 5         Where's Felix?

As you would expect, all the children in town wanted to sail away with the Fools, but their parents wouldn't hear of it:
"A trip out on the lake is fine. But forever? Certainly not!"
"What did I say", murmured Black Earnest: "I told you they don't like us! Can you hear, children? They don't like you. They want you to be like them! But just think what this town will look like once we've gone! And I bet Felix has been kidnapped by some bully boys from the town." 
With Felix missing, mountains of rubbish began to pile up beside the Happiness Machine, which kept going wrong, and really did start to smell bad. The Fools didn't know what to do. They ran through the town crying: "Help us find Felix", and people looked for him everywhere, high and low. But it was no use.
In the midst of the general confusion, the town's 'wise men' reported they had scientific proof that the many children born since the Fools' arrival had not come into the world because of the Happiness Machine. They even said the Fountain of Youth Slide could not really make people younger. All that was just swindle, cheating and stupid superstition, they said.
In the end - as always - the merchants settled the argument. They wanted to hold a normal market in peace again. And so the Fools had to take the Happiness Machine apart. But what to do with the parts? No one wanted them back.

Stop  6             The Escape

Children suddenly started disappearing from the town. No one could find them, although they searched everywhere. More and more children went missing. Dozens. Eventually, with the parents afraid and desperate, and so many other people angry, there was an uprising. Believing the children had disappeared into the Fools' ship, everyone wanted to ransack it and sink it. A young man from the town called Matti confronted the crowd of enraged townspeople and argued with them:
"No way! You'll have to sink me first!" 
But soon the police appeared and took Matti away. When the snow-white Virgin saw this from the ship, she jumped out onto land and ran after the police who were marching away with the young man in handcuffs. 
"Let him go, let him go!" she shouted. 
But the police, who were just doing their duty, didn't stop to listen to the snow-white Virgin. She followed them to the jail where they imprisoned Matti, and decided to wait outside the tower until he was released. But she was going to have a long wait, because Matti was locked away in a deep, dark dungeon. 
Sitting in the pitch black, Matti suddenly heard a noise coming to him through the bars of his cell door from beyond the passage outside - as if someone were pedalling a bike.
"Hello", he called. "Is anyone there?" 
"Yes. It's me. Felix the Builder!" a voice puffed from the passage.
"What are you doing here?", called out Matti, amazed.
"I'm sitting in the cell next door on an old bike which I've converted into a light machine. I'm using it to channel my energy into batteries. The General wants to use my energy, so I've promised to deliver it to him early tomorrow in return for setting me free again. But who are you?" 
My name is Matthäus Armin Theodor, but we always shorten things here, so people just call me Matti.
"Typical," said Felix: "And what have you been jailed for?" 
"I wanted to stop the townsfolk from sinking the Fools' ship." 
"Don't worry," called Felix, "Get some sleep. The ship's children will come and set you free tomorrow with their magic lamps."

The Fools' ship was sunk that same night. But by morning, a new, even more colourful, even crazier ship was already floating in the port. And who was twirling and whirling on top of the mast? Felix the Builder, of course.
"How did you manage that?" gasped the town dwellers.
"We built it from the parts of the Happiness Machine", replied the Fools: "We didn't know what to do with all the junk, anyway." 

Stop 7            Goodbye

Now that the Swiss had lots of children of their own again, the town seemed smaller and more crowded. Especially when all the children who had disappeared turned up again. The government officials, and the Generals in particular, regarded the Fools with suspicion, because there was something not quite right about them: Felix was free again, there was a new ship in the harbour instead of the sunken ship, and, on top of everything, the children on board the ship had actually got young Matti out of the heavily guarded prison tower with just their magic lamps. This is why some of the town councillors were on their way to speak to the ship's captain.
"We want to make peace with you", they began, "we're grateful for what you've done for us, but it would be better if you go now. There's not enough room for us all here."

"Then come and live with us", said the captain. "There's enough room for everyone on our ship." 
"There's room enough for everyone in that little ship?" 
"Of course. Try it and see! Come on, climb aboard!" replied the captain.
And he was right: on a ship not much bigger than a bathtub there was plenty of room for everyone to move around, and no one had to complain about lack of space. But, even so, when the town people left the ship later on, they still felt rather uneasy about things: 
"It's very kind of you Fools to invite us, but there's something not quite right: we don't believe in ghosts and magic", they said emphatically.
And so the Fools had to leave Switzerland. They were given lots of presents by the townspeople, and everybody was there to applaud when the strange-looking ship with its colourful crew sailed out of the port one beautiful morning. It glided majestically over the calm lake, away towards the rising sun, growing smaller and smaller all the time. From far off, the Fools could be heard singing their favourite song called "The Boat is full of Rats" - about a pack of rats that keeps shouting: "The boat is full!", but when you ask them: "with what?" they reply: "No idea. But: the boat is full!" It was a funny song. Even Earnest and nearly everyone in the town joined in. 
Only the snow-white Virgin sat crying. For although she had found Matti, her true love, and had decided to stay and live in the town with him, she was sad because she missed the Fools and their ship. Matti and the snow-white Virgin married soon afterwards and it was not long before their house was full of children. And now they have their own Ship of Fools at home and wherever they go: in their hearts.