Mankind: A Christmas Story
In 1982, Walter Warren Milliken was the third wealthiest man in the world. Oil magnate, news chief, captain of the steel industry, shipping merchant, beef and milk tycoon. Fifty years old, five wives behind him, Milliken was the only Western man worth more than a billion dollars who wore a full beard. He said, “The fullness of the earth is mine,” and ate raw pink abalone every day. For twelve minutes one Christmas Eve, he became possessed by a demon with an unpronounceable name. Strong as a bear in the arms. Owned a golden scythe— a gift for someone else he liked too much to part with— and a bright smile.
Then Walter Warren Milliken became the wet Pharaoh. On the same day, two tragedies beset his soul. His sister Beth was murdered in her New York City townhouse by a jealous husband. Walter’s brother Geoffrey, who was thin and cruel, stabbed a man to death in San Diego. Milliken’s enemies and competitors devoured the story and he was turned into a recluse. Formerly an atheist, Milliken decided he believed in the soul and hell, although heaven seemed like a stretch.
Broken, he moved to Tibet and borrowed cinnamon colored robes and no one knew him. He shaved his beard, then his head, then his whole body and became a little baby once again. He prayed endlessly, hopelessly for the soul of his sister. News reached him of Geoffrey’s execution, so he prayed endlessly for his soul, as well. One night, Milliken was beaten nearly to death in his bed. He woke in a new country, hearing a new language, and spent nine months in traction, during which time his only request was to become clean shaven every three days. His American empire continued without him. A friend found him, read him the book of Job, then Milliken was content to try his hand once more at adulthood.
He walked with a cane, built up his strength and moved to Alaska. He possessed a huge house in the middle of nowhere, three menservants and three maidservants, food flown in, and he occupied a small study nearly every day, all day, praying and reading. He was not mad, only quiet. One summer, the lawn green and the forty windows open, a man dressed all in white knocked on the front door— the first time this had ever happened. The stranger introduced himself to the butler by a name the butler could not understand no matter how many times the stranger spoke it. The stranger carried an old leather bag and when he came to Walter, who was sitting on the floor of his den, he pitched the bag at him and it landed near him. The menservants and maidservants waited anxiously outside the door to the den. Milliken started to open the bag, but the stranger said, “Why don’t you give the help an evening off first?” and they all spilled away like marbles.
Milliken opened the bag and looked inside. “Do you know what those are?” asked the stranger. “Yes… and no,” said Milliken, rifling through. The stranger said, “I’ll tell you, then you can figure out what you want to do with them.” Later, the stranger was gone.
For many months, Milliken did nothing but think, then he made some phone calls to people he had not spoken to in years. He said he wanted to publish a book and that the book was going to be free for everyone in the entire world. Five billion copies printed. The cost was mythic, but the endeavor would only require half his wealth. The subject matter of the book was to be kept a secret. Only twelve people could know and they must be sworn to secrecy.
On January 1st, 1987, Milliken’s many news outlets began advertising the book. Although the book did not yet exist, it would exist on January 1st, 1988, and everyone in the world could have a copy for free. The book would be called Mankind. White cover, black letters for the title. As for the contents of the thing— this, nobody could know.
Endless advertising for the book began in earnest: billboards, radio advertisements and television advertisements, not to mention newspaper and magazine articles speculating on what it would be. Overnight, Mankind was all anyone could talk about. A man’s ironic neighbor plastered a coy bumper sticker on his car which said, What is "Mankind"? Perhaps Milliken had become Christian and this would just be another copy of the Bible, outfitted with a new and intriguing name to drum up fresh interest. Some doubted. Was the book an insult to illiterate people? How could the contents of the book justify the outrageous cost, and could not that money be better spent on the hungry? Had we passed over a cure for cancer and AIDS for this book alone? What?
Milliken spoke with no one. He tipped his hand to no one and would not grant interviews. Rumors of his Alaska home surfaced and he went into hiding in Russia. The twelve men who knew the contents of the book had sworn on their lives that they would reveal nothing. When asked, they were required to lie. Unending, the story would not die and the suspense was terrifying. Several men publicly threatened to take their own lives if Milliken would not disclose the contents before November, but he would not and one of those men was no more. The book was demonic it was claimed elsewhere. An attempt to overrule the power of Holy Scripture. Milliken was worshipped by a very few.
In the last week of December, every postal outfit the world over declared themselves to be on hiatus to the public, devoting their full attention to shipping and delivering Mankind to the hundreds of thousands of locations where the book would be distributed. Some facts about the book leaked. It was thin, but every page was massive, like a coffee table book. The binding was stronger than it needed to be. Expensive, said analysts. The contents remained unknown.
Then January 1st came and Mankind was given to all of mankind. Mankind received Mankind, opened Mankind and was shocked at what it found. Large and glossy photographs of infants. No words, only photographs, one every other page. Twenty-four photographs in all. Many of the photographs looked quite old, dating back perhaps to the early 1900s. Adorable babies in sailor outfits and little sweaters and jumpers. Some were posed, others candid. Wonderful little children, cheeks of light and innocent eyes. The pictures were not shocking. “These kind of pictures,” said most, flipping through the pages dreamily, “are the kinds of pictures we’ve seen before. This is nothing special, really.” Milliken was a sentimentalist. Some tried to read the book as a sacred text, turning it upside down before a mirror to interpret it. Others studied the faces of the children, looked for reflections in the pupils. An angel with a camera? Why did these children matter? Theologians on Larry King Live shrugged their shoulders. Minor outrage flared (but quickly burned out) when some research lab announced that all the children in the book were male. Initially, the infants were referred to by their numbered placement in the book, then this seemed antithetical to the call of the book. Thus, they became named— William, Vincent, Jackson, Pablo. Boy’s names. Baby Fourteen was named Elizabeth to satisfy people who can be easily satisfied. A few people crunched numbers and speculated that each child in the book might still be alive. If one of them could be found, he would need a crown. His life would need study— how ever was he chosen?
In the years that followed, most figured out that the identities of the children did not matter. Milliken wanted the world to dwell on purity, humanity, weakness and frailty, helplessness. All those things children had always represented, but which had become lost in the shuffle of modern life. He poured an infinite amount of money into calling human beings to think anew on these subjects. Birth rates inched up in most places. A few good-hearted cutthroats used swaying public opinion to get some things done. Abortion was outlawed once again in a few small countries, although this might have happened without Mankind ever being released. Church attendance rose one percent— again this might have happened for a number of reasons. Eventually, a full week went by without anyone in the Western hemisphere mentioning Mankind. The book was performance art, it was decided. Regardless of the good done by the book, everyone supposed Milliken was mad.
A few questions remained after that good was accomplished. No one had been able to find any other pictures of these infants and children. They seemed to be otherwise unknown human beings— phantoms and maybe even apparitions. No one heard from Milliken. Not even the twelve knew where he was— deep and dark under everything like oil.
Then Milliken appeared, but in name only and through a New Year’s press release. He would grant another book and it also would be called Mankind, one copy free for every human being. Some were incredulous, claiming nothing would happen. Others exploded at the possibilities. Theologians came out of the woodwork again, this time with a few cynical barbs curling out of their gums. The same one year wait, the same release date, January 1st, 1998. “Different babies this time?” some asked coolly. Countless hours were squandered in speculation. Pollsters announced that the average American spent six hours a week talking with friends about the forthcoming Mankind. In late July and early August, interest waned and people could care less, then as Christmas neared, interest and love for the book refreshed— whatever it was— and the wait was excruciating again.
The second and final Mankind arrived in binding and with a cover exactly like the first, but in the few moments anyone had whilst unwrapping the clear packaging, anything might have been in the book. Copies were passed out like rations to the third world— in London and Chicago, hordes of human beings crowded in shopping mall parking lots around the back of eighteen-wheelers, arms outstretched. Tired and filthy men with leather gloves and John Henry expressions filled supplicant hands with holiness. But what was this? People with opened books milled around the parking lot like zombies, engrossed.
The photographs of infants and tiny, helpless and wonderful children from the first book were present in the second, the same pictures in fact, although names appeared under each now. Winston Moseley. John Wayne Gacy. Javed Iqbal. Idi Amin. Pol Pot. Daniel Barbosa. Benito Mussolini. Mao Zedong. These infants had ascended to the level of gods during the last ten years— they were unknown, but beloved by the world. They were everyone’s children, the children shared by Moslem and Christian and Hindu alike. Their images sold postcards and wrapping paper, posters and reprints for the rich and the bohemian. Everyone had a favorite, one child special to himself or herself like an old keepsake or idol. All had invented personalities for their favorites, transformed them into invisible friends, spirits that capered around over the left shoulder encouraging goodness or good-natured malice, if need be. Now, the gods and friends were revealed. Exposed. A few rash persons burned Mankind. The second Mankind, that is.
A few dismissed the second Mankind as balderdash. These were not pictures of any such people (Pol Pot! Why not Adolf Hitler while you’re at it?)— if they were, these pictures would have surfaced before. We would have known. Even if the pictures were what they purported to be, to what end? Who cares? We all knew these men were helpless children at one point, but they grew up, for God’s sake. Each committed their life to an impious purpose, an evil oeuvre, and we judge them not for what they were but what they became.
However, others argued, we always judge people for what they were. It is impossible to judge someone for what they are doing in the present. We always judge the past. Was not each of these men formerly a child just as much as he was a killer of children? And then came unproductive arguments about the nature of time.
Endless debate arose about the intent behind the books. Whether it was sound or not. Precious few people claimed that Mankind had done anything significant to their mind or spirit. Anger. The whole project was sentimental and foolish. Theologians rested their chins on their palms, drummed their fingertips on their cheekbones and endured questions about whether an angry, vindictive God was needed when such a horrible message could be created and taught by a man. Such questions weren’t treated seriously and died out quickly.
Some claimed the second book hadn’t been published by Milliken at all. Milliken had died years ago. The first book affirmed the goodness of all men (and women, somehow) and the second only sought to prove our suspicions were wrong. Was no one innocent? Those children were our own— how had they been made into monsters overnight? The second book was the work of some underhanded misanthrope, not someone of nearly violent and righteous simplicity, which Milliken had revealed himself to be in the first Mankind.
Walter Warren Milliken died alone in the woods of a foreign country without ever hearing how either of the books was received. He was judged very leniently by familiar hands and thought to himself often, “I should have known…”
by David Kern
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