Volume 30, Number 4

Emperor Herbert and the Zumzudian List

Gabriel Ertsgaard

There once was an Emperor named Herbert who was very proud of his name. Ornate letters above his palace gate declared “Herbert’s Palace!” From the gate to the palace door ran the well-marked “Herbert’s Path.” There was not only a “Herbert’s Throne” sign affixed to his royal seat, but also a “Herbert’s Toilet” plaque on the other solid gold throne. Although Emperor Herbert liked his name very much, there was something else that he didn’t like. Emperor Herbert hated Zumzudians.

Zumzudians wore purple shoes. Emperor Herbert preferred green. Zumzudians went to temple on Saturday. Emperor Herbert went on Sunday. (Or more accurately, he forgot to go on Sunday.) Zumzudians wore fuzzy hats. Emperor Herbert never wore a hat because it would mess up his fancy hairdo—his royal crown was a classy, slender circlet. Zumzudians wore long pants and shirts with long sleeves. Emperor Herbert liked looking at other people’s legs and arms. Worst of all, though, some Zumzudians were troublemakers. 

Yes, some really were. They would vandalize “Herbert is the Best!” signs. They would push grandmothers into mud puddles. They would kick cats. And when they did these things they would shout, “All glory to Zumzud!” and make loud yodeling sounds. Now, these troublemakers were a minority; most Zumzudians had never even met one. Most Zumzudians led civil, peaceful lives. They muttered, “What has that to do with Zumzud?” when stories of the troublemakers came around.

Just as most Zumzudians were not troublemakers, most troublemakers were not Zumzudians. There were far more cat-kickers in green shoes than in purple ones. Nevertheless, because of those troublemakers, many people began to hate all Zumzudians—and no one hated them more than Emperor Herbert. “Purple-shod cat kickers!” he raged.

The more Emperor Herbert thought about Zumzudians, the more he squirmed. And the more he squirmed, the more he scowled. And the more he scowled, the angrier he got. And the angrier he got, the more he thought about Zumzudians. Finally he shouted, 

“I’ve got it! I’ve thought it through.
Now I know just what to do.
I’ll make a list, put to pen 
every last Zumzudian.

“Where they live. What they smell like.
How much ice cream each one eats.
Just what shade of purple sits on
all of those obnoxious feet.

“What they’re buying.
What they’re doing.
What they’re wearing.
How they’re pooing.

“Box them, watch them,
check for trouble.
If I want, snap, snap, 
on the double
I can round them all up!”

This was a wonderful plan, Emperor Herbert thought. He kicked a cat in celebration. The next day, the Emperor called a massive rally to tell everybody about his project. Standing before the cheering crowd, he drew on a powerful gift. Not wizardry, which required learning something’s true name or deepest essence. The Emperor had no patience for that. He had a flair, though, for illusion—the art of concocted labels and unreliable visions.

“Zumzudians, grrr!” shouted Emperor Herbert. 

“Zumzudians, grrr!” the crowd loudly echoed. 

“Purple-shod cat kickers!” the Emperor screamed. 

“Purple-shod cat kickers!” the crowd roared back.

“And grandma puddle plus the vandalism!” shrieked Emperor Herbert.

“Grandma puddle plus the vandalism!” repeated the violently furious crowd.

“Here’s what I’m going to do,” declared Emperor Herbert “I’m going to make a list, the biggest list you’ve ever seen. Why so big? Because on it goes the name of every single Zumzudian! Yeah, then it’s easy to find them. Some Zumzudians are nice people, of course. Probably. So what do they have to worry about? The ones who have nothing to hide, why would they care that their name is on some list?”

“Make the list! Make the list!” the now frenzied crowd chanted as they waved signs with Herbert’s name and image. Some went searching for Zumzudians to whack with the signs. Others were happy just to smooch pictures of the Emperor’s face. Emperor Herbert felt very, very good.

Soon thereafter, the Emperor’s scribes rode from town to town, seeking out every fuzzy-hatted Zumzudian. They lurked outside of temples and trampled through flower beds. They made an absolute mess of Zumzudian-owned shops—tossing about rugs, kettles and bags of raisins in their search for sneaky dissidents. “He probably wants the list so he can round us all up!” whispered worried Zumzudians to each other. But they were not the only ones with concerns.

“First a list of Zumzudians, but after that who’s next?” asked teachers and bakers, apple sellers and homemakers, elephant washers and undertakers.

“I have brown hair, and some brown-haired people are vandals—will I go on a list?”

“I have green eyes, and some green-eyed people are grandma pushers—will I go on a list?”

“I have stubby thumbs, and some stubby-thumbed people are cat kickers—will I go on a list?”

“My first name begins with ‘L’ ...”

“I used to play the harmonica ...”

“I like to wear shirts with long sleeves ...”

“I don’t have a fancy hairdo ...”

Look hard enough, and everyone had something in common with a troublemaker. If that was the new standard, no one would be safe from the Emperor’s whims. 

Off in one corner of the empire, though, a silver-haired beautician named Bernice had a strange but powerful idea. “Maybe I’ll just sign my name to that list, too!” she spouted, “Let’s see how those moss-booted bullies deal with old Bernice declaring herself an honorary Zumzudian.” At first people tried to shush Bernice, but that just made her more determined. What started out as a wisecrack transformed into a call to action. “I’m really going to do it!” she insisted to friend and foe alike.

Although Bernice didn’t know it, her stubbornness had its own magic power. The more she held her ground, the more her neighbors went from fearful to inspired. They told her idea to their friends, who told it to their friends, and in a flash it spread from person to person around the country. “If he wants the biggest list ever, we’ll give it to him!” a host of eager dissidents declared. Soon, whenever the scribes arrived in a new town, they were swarmed by people demanding that their names be added to the list.

They weren’t Zumzudian by heritage, perhaps, but they had brown hair and some brown-haired people were vandals, or they had green eyes and some green-eyed people were grandma pushers, or they had stubby thumbs and some stubby-thumbed people were cat kickers, or their first names began with “L,” or they used to play the harmonica, or they liked to wear shirts with long sleeves, or they didn’t have fancy hairdos ... and therefore they should count as Zumzudian according to the logic of the list.

The beleaguered scribes ran out of paper. Helpful citizens brought them more. The scribes insisted that the list was only for real Zumzudians. The crowds pretended not to understand. Finally the scribes trudged with their heavy burden back to Emperor Herbert’s palace. The Emperor was shocked by the size of the list. The chief scribe admitted that close to half of the country had declared themselves Zumzudian. “But they were using a very loose definition,” he clarified.

“I don’t understand,” said Emperor Herbert, “No one at the rally seemed confused.”

“Well,” said the chief scribe, a tremble in his voice, “sometimes the people who don’t go to your rallies think differently about these things than those who do.”

Tears welled up in the Emperor’s eyes. His magnificent list was useless. He grabbed a sheet and tore it into tiny pieces—then another and another. “Burn it!” he screamed, “Burn the list! I never want to see it again!” Then the Emperor fled the throne room and threw himself down on Herbert’s Comfy Bed. 

Loyal to the Emperor’s instructions, the scribes took the massive list out into the courtyard. There in a roaring bonfire, the Zumzudian list was reduced to ash.