When Blong saw Grompf hurtling down the hill with long, angry strides, dragging a wheelbarrow behind him, he sent his wife and children to hide. That was wise, for Grompf spun the barrow above his head and threw it down as hard as he could, directly on the straw on which they were eating lunch. The barrow split in a thousand pieces around the fire. Blong's heart ached when he saw in all these splinters the fruit of his labor: he had built this barrow with his own hands; sold it for three chickens. Now it was as worthless as a fistful of stones.
He wondered how it had come into Grompf's possession, but he didn't have time to think about it, for Grompf, who had finally arrived at the bottom of the tall hill, huffing and puffing, had lifted the wheel from the ground and was shaking it maniacally.
“What?” said Blong, confused.
Grompf puffed up his chest and hit it like a drum with his free hand.
It seemed that Grompf was saying that the wheel belonged to him, but that did not explain why he was so angry. Grompf must have noticed that his intent had not been properly communicated, so while fondling the wheel, he said:
“Me make wheel!”
Well, that was clearer, but evidently wrong. Granted, Grompf also made wheelbarrows–in fact, he had invented the wheelbarrow, and until recently he was the only man to know how to build them. However, Blong, fascinated by technology, had reverse engineered the machine's design and was now able to build his own that were just as good, including the one that laid broken at their feet.
“No, me make wheel!” answered Blong.
Grompf's face twisted itself into a grotesque display of rage. He threw the wheel at Blong as strongly as he could, but his aim was quite poor and the object missed Blong's cheek by a fraction of an inch. It rolled ahead and thumped on the trunk of a tree.
Disarmed, Grompf deflated like a balloon (although balloons did not yet exist). He nodded timidly and went away, ambling up the hill with greater difficulty than he had scaled it down.
Grompf sat in perfect darkness in his workshop, a large and airy room in the middle of a labyrinthine walk below the earth. Provided he lit up the room with a torch or two he could work without disturbance. He chose this lost cave so that no one could spy on him, but evidently he had failed. Blong, that bastard, that swine, must have found his way in. He had watched in the deep shadows, and he had learned his secret. Grompf wanted to hit something, but in the darkness he would probably have broken a toe.
He had invented the wheel a hundred full moons before—more than he could count. He was so proud of that invention. Thanks to the wheel, a barrow could carry heavy things like wood, rocks, animal corpses, or old Brobof who only had one leg but managed to survive anyway. (Perhaps he was eternal. Who knows?)
Grompf felt that because he had created it, the wheel belonged to him. Oh, he did not mean that all wheels, the physical objects, belonged to him, but rather that the concept of wheel was his own, and therefore that if anyone copied his invention they were, in a sense, thieves. That is what he had meant to tell Blong, but the scoundrel had feigned ignorance.
At that moment, an unsteady light, coming from the main tunnel, cast some shadows in the workshop, dancing threateningly. Grompf was startled; for a few heartbeats, he entertained many paranoid thoughts, Blong with a club, Blong with his four brothers, Blong with an armored barrow. Grompf took a lance and crawled silently towards the secondary tunnel, which he could use to escape.
He sighed in relief when he saw that the intruder was his wife, Granash, the only other human being who knew the path to his workshop. She had given him seven children, but unfortunately only two sons remained. The oldest was an imbecile, and the youngest only was only forty moons old. The thought that his young son may become sick or injure himself, and that he may be left with no one to teach his art to, greatly distressed Grompf.
Granash stopped at the mouth of the cave and looked at her husband, asking implicitly for permission to enter. Grompf stared at her for some time. They had known each other their whole lives. She had seen as many moons as he had and for each moon she gained a new wrinkle and a few grey hairs, but the warm light of the torch attenuated these details and he thought she was as beautiful as always. He told her she could enter. She carefully slid the torch into a stand built to receive it and sat down next to him in the back of the workshop on the cool rock near the tunnel. She took an axle in her hands. It had been snapped in half.
“Blong make wheel,” said Grompf.
She shrugged and showed a pained smile. In her eyes were mixed sadness and resignation, betraying that she had expected this. She uttered an abstract word, which a long time ago would have been a story, an allegory, a metaphor, but which as time passed had been contracted into a few syllables:
No need to point out that she was very, very good with words.
“Wheel! Me!” said Grompf impotently.
Property was a new idea that came from their fathers. Grompf had always been one of the most ardent defenders of that revolutionary concept, and the community enthusiastically adopted the idea, energized by his unwavering faith and the abstract words his wife whispered in his ear (which, in all honesty, no one really understood). They had a militia to punish thieves with as much sanctimonious violence as they punished the adulterous. Alas, Grompf now realized that his peers did not accept what he considered self-evident, that is to say, that not only the food he ate, the cave in which he lived, the wife he made love to, but also the abstract idea of the wheel, belonged to him. Blong had already copied his idea five times, five barrows, which he traded at disloyal rates, and no one cared. Even Grompf's own wife had accepted it.
Granash came closer and tried to hug him, but he shuffled further away from her.
He wanted to cry, but he couldn't do it in front of Granash. It would have been an indignity.
“Blong take wheel heart”, he said, almost choking on the idea's immense complexity. “Blong steal idea”, agreed Granash.
They remained silent for a long time and Grompf thought she had understood, but she added:
So what? One word escaped through his tortured mind, like a strange new butterfly slipping between his lips:
Granash shivered when she heard that word, likely the most abstract ever uttered in the story of man until that day, and seeing her visceral reaction one may understand why it took so long for mankind to come up with the zero.
Grompf's idea did not belong to him anymore. It wasn't there, with him, in his heart, which as anyone knows is the seat of thought.
But that idea was everything he had! His very identity as a wheel maker had slipped through his fingers and the void was so great that he felt he could never become whole again. If Grompf wasn't the inventor of the wheel, if Blong had stolen that idea, and no one cared, then who was he? Who was Grompf?
(It must be said, at this point, that “Grompf” was a portmanteau of the words “grom”, which meant carving stone or wood, and “ompf” which meant full moon, and because the wheel was round like the full moon, the metaphor stuck. The despair of Grompf must therefore be understood as the pain of losing one's own name. It is probable that Grompf was also the inventor of the existential crisis, although no one would have known how to name such a thing.)
It is then that Granash suggested a revolutionary idea:
That new word mixed the word “ski”, which was also the word for “one” or “first”, and “grom” which as we have seen meant “carve”, therefore “gromski” meant “first carver”. In modern days one would have simply said “inventor”.
As he took a minute to assimilate this new concept, Grompf's mood, now Gromski, was made considerably brighter. He had a new name. But something was amiss.
“Grompfski?” he said, confused.
“Gromski!” she repeated.
This was truly a revolutionary thought: she had not simply meant “first wheel carver”, eyes bright with hope, but indeed “first carver”. There was something in that distinction, and Gromski, who was quite intelligent, saw on what path Granash was leading him. In order to be reborn he could not simply be the inventor of the wheel, for that was in the past. He had to be an inventor. He had to invent again.
Gromski quickly realized how difficult this task was. The wheel was the greatest invention of all time since fire, which was known since immemorial times, before the father of his father. On the wall he drew schemas with charcoal—drawing was another great invention—but he only managed to draw wheels of various sizes and shapes, squares, triangles, pentagons, stars, and he tried to figure out how anyone could be interested by a piece of wood with that shape. His oldest son, Boof, watched him, but unfortunately he was dumber than a donkey. Gromski had to make peace with that fact after it took him three times to explain why an oblong wheel wouldn't roll properly.
“Shit!” he finally said. It was one of the oldest words.
He turned his back to his schemas, mad with frustration, damning the sons of his sons to a hell nobody had yet invented.
In the end he took the torch and ambled back through the meandering twists and turns of the cave network. He had to go outside to air his mind. It was on the path to the river, shallow rapids where youths refreshed themselves and tried to catch fish with their bare hands, that the conception of the wheel took root in his heart. To gain access to it, one had to go down a rocky slope. On the ground, Gromski had seen a perfectly round rock, and at the center there was a darker spot, also perfectly round. It was a beautiful rock, and the spot made him think of a hole. An idea leading to the next, he wound up building something useful. It was on that path that Gromski walked. Boof followed, but his father didn't pay attention to him. (Boof wondered why no one seemed to notice that he existed, but we will not concern ourselves with his inner void: his father's is more interesting.)
Gromski, after the last turn in the path, saw that there was a commotion, a crowd in the clearing where the community gathered for feasts and rituals. He went to see what was going on. Perhaps it would be inspiring. And lo and behold, beyond the great polished rock where hunters cut up buffalos and antelopes, under the great baobab around which the women joined hands and danced, the corpse of a gazelle was hung.
Gromski contemplated the machine, disconcerted. A wheel was attached to the tree, he couldn't tell how, and a rope, tied at one end to the animal, and at the other wound around a stake, was tense on the surface of the wheel.
“Pulley! Pulley!” said a few excited voices. (Obviously, what they were saying was not literally “pulley” but “cok ompf”, meaning “rope full moon” or “rope wheel”.)
Blong explained his invention with a mixture of words and gestures, and as he grunted he pointed and touched the critical parts of the mechanism. Grompf, confounded, listened and looked without understanding, then he turned back to get away from it, anywhere but here. But in his path was his worthless son, who was looking at the pulley with abject admiration. Grompf smacked him so hard his brains rattled and walked back home with a strange, choking weight on his back.
Grompf's mind was turning ashen as quickly as his torch, burning away. Blong stole his idea for the wheel, he stole his name, and he had the gall to steal his second invention before he even had it. That was more than he could bear.
The militia did not patrol the tunnels. That would not have been very practical, and anyway no one knew their way through them. No one except Grompf, of course, who had walked them for so long they were inked in his mind. Before long he was nearing Blong's home, and his rival's voice echoed through the tunnel.
They are not asleep, he thought, which was not what he had hoped, but he put out his torch and kept walking with careful, silent steps, one after the other. He had to stop right where Blong's living room started, a large room, walls painted all over with children's scribbles. Blong was back to the narrow slit behind which Grompf had arrived, a crack that connected the room to the rest of the network, but too narrow to enter.
Grompf held a sharp knife in his right hand. Blong's neck was just within reach. He only had to stretch his arm, which he did, unsteadily. He pushed his knife into the air until the tip almost touched his enemy's nape. At that moment Blong grunted and turned quickly. Their eyes met, and Blong leaned his head towards Grompf to see him better, not seeing the knife and accidentally impaling himself on it. Grompf pushed it through and Blong fell away from him.
Yelling. Shrieking. Two kids, a hysterical mother, rushing to their bloddied father and husband, but powerless to stop the flow of life from gushing out of him. They did not see Grompf, they did not look in his direction. He could have leaned back and disappeared into the shadows. But suddenly there was a fourth silhouette, on the other side of the fire, looking at him. Boof.
Grompf ran away.
He ran as quickly as he could through the narrow and opaque tunnels through which he had come, blind, without any light to guide him. He tripped on a stalactite. His hip exploded with pain, his cold torch went tumbling somewhere unknown, but the grip he had on his knife remained sure.
He laughed nervously. He was lost. He was injured. He was dead.
Then he thought it may not be that bad. If he died without passing his knowledge, if Blong who stole it from him could not transmit it either, because he was dead already, then the secret of the wheel would die with them. When the few remaining barrows would rot, nothing would remain, humanity would have no more wheelbarrows, they would not be able to build pulleys, trolleys, mills or cars.
They would remain stuck in the stone age until the end of time.
That will be my vengeance, Grompf thought to himself. He impaled himself on his knife, Blong's blood mixing with his own, and his body was never found.