The Martians descend to Earth in their spaceship. They intend to go to New York – they want to see something called ‘a musical’ – but they get the directions mixed up, as many before them have done, and end up in Canada instead, as many before them have also done. Specifically, they land on a chunk of rock in the boreal forest somewhere on the Laurentian Shield. There is no one around, or no one you might recognize as ‘one’.
‘Where is here?’ says the first Martian.
‘ “Where” is always relative,’ says the second Martian. ‘Where in relation to what?’
‘This approach is not helpful,’ says the third Martian.
Luckily there is a mushroom – it’s the summer, however brief – and these Martians know how to talk to mushrooms, which they resemble somewhat in appearance.
‘Where are we?’ they ask the mushroom. It is an Amanita muscaria – not entirely trustworthy, prone to illusions, and somewhat vain, due to having been worshipped as a deity in Siberia, but it is the only sentient being in evidence.
‘Depends who you ask,’ says the mushroom. ‘And how long their memory is. Mushrooms have long memories. Some of them are thousands of years old. However, they are not always very talkative.’
‘We’ve noticed that,’ say the Martians.
‘Depends also on what you mean by “here”,’ says the mushroom. ‘Do you include the part underneath ground level? That’s mostly what “here” is, for a mushroom.’
‘Just the coordinates,’ says the first Martian. ‘Spell it out for us. And please don’t quibble about whether mushrooms know how to spell: it’s a figure of speech.’
‘If the memory in question is short, this might be a place called Canada,’ says the Amanita. ‘Longer, it might be a place called New France, more or less, maybe, if those people got up this far. Longer than that, it might be a place called Turtle Island. Longer than that, it might be a place called Laurentide Ice Sheet. Longer than that, it might be a place called Laurentia, otherwise known as North American Craton. Longer than that, it might be a place called Molten Blob of Magma. Some of these so-called “places” were good for mushrooms. Others – such as the ice shield and the molten blob – not so much.’
‘We can time travel,’ say the Martians. ‘Which would be the best time slot for seeing a musical, in your opinion?’
‘Maybe the Canada one,’ says the mushroom. ‘Present tense. Definitely not the Magma.’
‘Okay, but what is it?’ says the second Martian. ‘The Canada one?’
‘Many have asked,’ says the mushroom. ‘Some say it’s a country.’
‘But what is a country?’ says the third Martian.
‘Ah,’ says the mushroom. ‘You’ve heard of people?’
‘Yeah, sure, of course,’ says the first Martian. ‘Two legs, only two arms, strange-looking heads, only two eyes. You need them for putting on musicals.’
‘Okay, a country is an idea people get into their brains,’ says the mushroom. ‘Without people, there aren’t any countries. Mushrooms don’t bother with countries.’
‘That’s a start,’ says the second Martian. ‘What sort of idea, in their brains?’
‘You draw a line, you put up walls and gates and such, you say some people can’t come in and other people can’t go out, you say everything inside this country is a certain kind of thing and that’s how it is done inside the line you’ve drawn, you make laws, you have customs and a language, or two languages, or fifty-four languages, it depends. You have a flag, which is a piece of cloth with some sort of pattern on it, and it waves around in the wind. Unlike mushrooms: we don’t wave anything. Maybe you have national outfits. You have a special song that you’re supposed to sing, it’s a ceremonial thing on special occasions. You’re supposed to look really solemn and have deep emotions while doing it.’
‘A song,’ says the first Martian. ‘That sounds promising, for musicals! At least it’s a beginning.’
‘What about dances?’ says the second Martian. ‘Musicals have dances. That’s what the people need the legs for.’
‘Some countries have national dances, others not,’ says the mushroom. ‘Sometimes the countries have wars. That’s when they cross each other’s lines and gates and so forth and try to kill the people in the other country so they can get all of their stuff, one way or another.’
‘Toasters,’ says the mushroom. ‘Frying pans. Microwaves. All those anti-mushroom devices. Other stuff too, like land, gold, dead animals and trees. Fish – sometimes it’s fish. I don’t have much interest in fish myself, but some of these countries set a lot of store by them. Other countries are more interested in diamonds. But you can be obsessed by both.’
‘Okay, so that’s countries in general,’ says the third Martian. ‘What about this “Canada” country, then?’
‘They value fish,’ says the mushroom. ‘Water on three sides. Large. A lot of mushrooms, though not so many as once. What else would you like to know?’
‘From what you tell us,’ says the first Martian, ‘this “Canada” wasn’t always there. Where did it come from?’
‘Once upon a time,’ says the mushroom, settling into narrative mode, ‘the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted, and then there could be people. They had different languages. They were interested in fish, also animals. They had outfits and laws and customs and so forth, and songs. They had a lot of songs. But they didn’t have this flag thing.’
‘We don’t either,’ say the Martians.
‘Maybe you’d better get one,’ says the mushroom. ‘They come in handy.’
‘For what?’ say the Martians.
‘Claiming,’ says the mushroom.
‘I don’t grasp your meaning,’ says the first Martian. ‘What is claiming?’
‘In this specific instance,’ says the Amanita, ‘some people with a flag sailed over the ocean blue, and when they got to this side they stuck the flag in the ground – it was on a pole – and said, “I claim this land for France.” Then they made a speech and wrote things down, and said the whole place was theirs, including all the fish, trees and animals, and the people who were already there. And the mushrooms. We mushrooms didn’t get a say in it. Of course nobody pays any attention to us anyway, unless they eat a poisonous sporocarp.’
‘What’s a sporocarp?’ says the second Martian.
‘You’re talking to one. So the people with the French flag set up a sort of sub-country, and had wars with some other people to the south who had done the same sort of claiming thing down there, but with a different flag.’
‘I see what you mean about flags,’ say the Martians. ‘We should indeed concoct one for ourselves. But did they do musicals, these flag-waving people?’
‘Thing about people,’ says the mushroom, ‘first they have wars. Then, after a while, they turn the wars into musicals. It’s just how they are.’
‘What about the people who were already there?’ say the Martians. ‘The ones without flags?’
‘Things didn’t go so well for them,’ says the mushroom. ‘To begin with, the new people were full of deadly spores. They didn’t know it, but they were practically half poisonous mushroom. And their spores poisoned a lot of the people who were already there, and they died. With the ones who didn’t die, things were sort of friendly at first, because the new people wanted animals. They wanted to put them on their heads, and also sell them to make lots of money. And the old people knew how to catch the animals. So things went on like that for a while.’
‘On their heads?’ ask the Martians. ‘Why?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ says the mushroom. ‘They liked it, what can I say? Then there was a war between the French-flag ones and the English-flag ones to see who would control the dead animals, and the French-flag ones lost, and the English ones took over the dead-animal trade. Then after a while the animals got used up, and the English-flag ones thought that instead they would get people to grow wheat and make money out of that instead.’
‘What is wheat?’ say the Martians.
‘It’s anti-mushroom,’ says the mushroom. ‘Wheat pushed the mushrooms off a lot of land. You can’t grow wheat and mushrooms in the same place and time. The original people got pushed off too, once they were no longer useful to the new people for catching the animals, for helping with the different wars, and for teaching the new people their knowledge about how to live here.’
‘Those new people don’t sound very grateful,’ says the first Martian.
‘That’s how it is with people,’ says the mushroom. ‘If they want to take a thing that belongs to someone else, gratitude goes out the window. So the new people made laws about the first people, and the first ones didn’t get a say. Things got bad for them. Plus a lot of poor people were shipped in, one way or another. Orphans, refugees, persecuted religions and whatnot. Many different languages, even more than at first! The ones shipped in were supposed to grow wheat. Things were bad for them too, because they were so poor, and didn’t have thick winter coats. They had to eat parsnips. I think it was parsnips. And so it went on.
‘Then after a while some of the higher-ups decided to call the place Canada – I forget which came first, the wheat or the name change – but it was still only a kind of sub-country. The big sporocarp was a king or a queen, who cares which – mushrooms don’t do genders – who lived on the other side of the ocean.’
‘I’m confused,’ says the second Martian.
‘I’m alarmed,’ says the third Martian.
‘I’m bored,’ says the first Martian. ‘Let’s get to the musicals. What is Canada: The Musical?’
‘There isn’t one,’ says the mushroom, ‘because for the musicals you need to have a story. You need to decide how the story should come out – what’s the finale? But in this Canada place, they’ve been arguing about the story for a lot of years. Is it the story of the French-language people and how they didn’t do so well for a while? Is it the story of forging ahead with the wheat? There was something about a railroad too, but it’s not very musical. Is it the story about welcoming new kinds of people, or is it the story about not welcoming new kinds of people, especially those with different coloured caps and scales? Canada, land of opportunity, or Canada, land of unfair discrimination and exploitation? You could do both.
‘Is it the story about how one kind of sporocarp didn’t have this thing called “the vote” at first, but then they got hold of it? Is it the story about how the first people here were shoved aside, and these other people made up laws about them and took their stuff, but now they’re getting some of it back? There are a lot of stories, and all of them are true in their way, but not all of them would give you a rousing hurrah finale, plus dancing.’
‘I can see it’s a puzzle,’ says the second Martian. ‘Where to begin?’
‘That’s their problem, the Canada people,’ says the mushroom. ‘They don’t know where to begin, and they don’t know what to put in. Or what to leave out. No matter how you tell the Canada story, someone is going to be offended. Then they all say “Sorry” a lot.’
‘They sound inhibited,’ says the third Martian. ‘Should we maybe just try to find New York? They have more joie de vivre there.’
‘They used to have,’ says the mushroom. ‘Once upon a time. They did a million musicals; mostly stories about themselves. Or about cats. None of them bothered to tell the story about us mushrooms, though. Why isn’t there Mushrooms: The Musical? There’s a musical about everything else!’
‘Mushrooms don’t sing and dance, to be fair,’ says the third Martian.
‘That’s no excuse,’ says the Amanita, sulkily. ‘Neither do lions, and look at The Lion King!’
‘We’re trying to,’ say the Martians. ‘We just don’t know where it is. Where is this New York, where the musicals are?’
‘It’s south of here,’ says the mushroom. ‘Though I realize that’s vague. But I think it’s getting hostile to Martians down there. Safer for you here. Tell you what: why don’t you make a flag, attach it to a pole, stick it into the ground, and claim Canada? Then you can be the ones who decide what should be in Canada: The Musical. Do me a favour – put in some mushrooms. Amanita muscaria is a melodious name for the heroine of a musical, don’t you think?’
‘That’s a really good idea!’ says the first Martian.
‘Amanita, Amanita, how I loooove you,’ croons the mushroom. ‘Then there’s a modern dance number, with a chorus dressed as decomposing vegetation . . .’
‘I mean it’s a good idea about the flag,’ says the first Martian.
‘And claiming Canada for the Martians,’ says the second Martian. ‘Then we can have musicals non-stop!’
‘Let’s do this!’ says the third Martian. ‘We can back it up with our sure-fire drone-controlled ray guns.’
And so they do.
Artwork courtesy of the author