The Country/The Country: A serialized novel by Robert Knox
“One of the things science fiction does… is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.” — Ursula Le Guin
He dreamed he was Atlas, shifting the country in the direction he wanted it to go. He possessed no enormous, spectacular tools for the job, and he lacked an extra-terrestrial Archimedean place to stand.
Still, he pushed.
Keel called the others “Pigglies.”
You saw them on the screen all the time, you could hardly avoid it, lording themselves all over the landscape like conquerors. They lived in the same towns, often on the same streets as their opponents. He saw their signs in the windows of the houses, or planted on the lawns in his own neighborhood. Keel planted a stick in his front lawn supporting the printed slogan “Tax the Pigglies.”
The common word for the others was “pigs,” in satiric deference to their candidate.
Rumors began of incidents in the districts where the Voting Days were taking place. Trash thrown out of car windows. Graffiti scrawled on building walls. It was called ‘defacing.’ It was criminalized as ‘vandalism.’ But Keel knew it was really the release of bottled-up emotions. A cri de coeur. Those guilty of defacing bland, blank surfaces of their own cities and towns had reached an end of tolerance for the preening celebrants of Big Self-ism, the blunt calling card of the victors, the all-but-triumphed party in the recent parade of Voting Days that so divided the populace of Keel’s own medium-sized city of Monro in the broad middling district of Platow, and all the other districts in his sprawling, bipolar country.
What the graffiti scrawlers were signaling in their slashing spray-painted cries of rage was what many felt in their hearts:
“Kill Mr. Pig.”
No one had any doubt who the slogan referred to.
The person whose murder was being publicly, though anonymously, advocated (the advocating itself a criminal act) was Karol Pegasso, that bellicose, fulminating artist of himself. Everybody, except perhaps members of his own family and a few intimates, called him “Pig.”
The name seemed to fit.
The skin of the new favored candidate was very pale. Pink-tipped around the ears, the scalp (bits of which shone through his thinning hair), and on the tip of his nose, the skin surrounding his nostrils.
Keel did not take to killing, as a matter of principle. It was a bad habit for a people to form. He thought the solution to the problems, everybody’s problems, was to ‘build down.’ They had ‘built up’ too much in this country. He preferred the company of birds and butterflies to the golden temples of consumption erected for the wealthy. You could ‘look at’ such places, they were visitor attractions, you could acquire there, but you could not experience such places. There was nothing to experience there but a replication of self.
On the other hand, Keel could not step into a waste lot of tall weeds and broken glass without feeling the damaged life there that went on living there, hoping anxiously to heal itself.
The people, the country he was part of, needed to undergo a sea change — what an odd, old metaphor! — to reduce not only the endless round of consumption and exploitation of resources, but also to prevent what Keel preferred to call by older, more concrete words: rot, decay, flood, wildfire. He believed his country should un-pave every parking lot and let paradise find its own way back.
It was a time of crisis, Keel thought, possibly the last of such times. What others would denigrate, or perhaps applaud, as retreat or dissolution. He saw it as rebalance.
But what if this downward swing of the seesaw would not take place naturally? What if somebody — or something — large; an Atlas, a titan of the old gods — had to sit down on the weaker side to restore the natural swing?
Who could do that? Were the zealots who snuck about at night autographing foundations and store windows, in black marker or spray paint, with their demands for rash, violent action aware of something, some higher order of “truth,” perhaps, that he was not?
Still, he did not like killing. It was the tool of degenerates. It had always played a major role in both the rise and decline of historical movements of dubious value. Keel believed, or hoped, that killing belonged to some lower stage of social development, and that his world, and his country, would survive without it.
Yet he could see the appeal of extinction. He could understand the wish to have “the pig,” in particular, made extinct. He could even experience the desire to extinguish him. He shared the impulse, the craving of the fanatics. He felt a thrill when the black-marker graffitied slogan appeared in his neighborhood, scrawled on the side of a city bus. Over a speed limit sign on a street corner. In the blank window of an empty storefront.
He had no idea who put it there. But as for sentiment, he was with them.
2. Something Would Happen
Later he would wonder at how naive he had been, cheering the “Kill the Pig” graffiti.
How innocuous the gestured, the emotional release it provide, had seemed.
It has aged him.
Days later somebody, maybe the same graffiti scribe, maybe some new provocateur, grew bolder. Somehow the letters on the signboard outside the city’s liberal Universal-Goodness church, where the weekly update messaging that told not only the time of the service but the theme of the sermon, were rearranged, repurposed, subverted, pressed into service for a new cause.
The message board had been lettered, Keel was sure, to say something broadly spiritual in line with the church’s optimistic teaching such as “Keep Peace in Your Mind and Heart.” Or perhaps something about “great” or “goodness,” because where else would the ‘g’ have come from? Universal-Goodness churches were not fond of spelling out the word “G-o-d” on their public statements. “Give” was a better word for a Universal-Goodness church.
Nevertheless the redactor, to use an ancient word applied to those who rearranged for public consumption the teachings of ancient texts, had found sufficient letters for a new message. Not “Keep Peace in Your Heart.” Or “Give to the Needy.”
The new message bluntly stated: “Kill Mr. Pig.”
Keel thrilled to see it. Not happy, but stirred. That thrill, he would remember later, when things grew complicated, was his initial sensation. It meant that something new was happening.
The church would be badly embarrassed, he thought, spying the tampered message board on a late Saturday afternoon walk through the center of his neighborhood, the ‘village’ as some people referred to it. Not much foot traffic in this village any more. It had never been anything special in Keel’s time. A gathering of small stores at an intersection, one of the city’s larger roads running through it, dividing the neighborhood into east and west. Keel lived on one of the side streets on the west, or lower, side of the avenue, notable only for their worn, peaceful sameness. He was content with sameness. He had come to the point in life when all change was threatening. None of it more so, of course, than the anticipated accession to power of the candidate Karol Pegasso and his Cohorts of Anger. Anger was a dangerous commodity, he reflected; you could not contain it. You could not keep it all to yourself or deny any portion of it to your opponents. In fact, once you proclaimed it yours, that pronouncement — less a declaration than a summons, an invocation — drew the same flame from a thousand other sources.
One of those sources happened to be the seat of passion in the aging Keel, a man who for a lifetime had guided a temperate vessel of heart and mind through remarkably calm waters.
No more. The waters were stirred.
Seeing those words appear, as if etched by lightning, on a church message board loosed a power surge inside him.
The words “something will happen now” appeared in his thoughts, spoken by a voice that was not quite his own.
He walked past the church without altering his pace, as if sheltering his own neuro-physical response in a muffled layer of normality. As if the letters on the board merely spelled out the expected message: “Love is the Light within,” perhaps. Or “Listen to the Still, Small Voice.” Could some church member have posted the redacted transgressive message? Keel wondered whether it was time to question his understanding of how the world worked.
He continued down the sidewalk, consciously maintaining that forced, regulated pace out of fear that the new commandment was so blatant — such a break with the conventions and laws of civil peace — that all by itself it called into being a new calculation of civil threat.
Was somebody watching for a reaction?
How could some human being install so inflammatory a message in so public a place and not wish to see what effect it had?
Would shots ring out? The idea pushed itself into his thoughts with an irresistible immediacy; as if his nerves could hear them.
The old, stone-front church had been built so close to the sidewalk, its bulk consuming all available yardage, that no pleasant green space separated the message board from the public way. If the ‘village’ had ever possessed such a green, that time was long ago. It was an urban square now. Cramped parking lots. Sidewalks, curbstones, regulated parking signage. Signs and traffic lights furnishing the public way.
Someone could stand (or kneel) behind a window in a building across the street and watch who passed the church. Across the way, Keep knew without turning his head, a low apartment building bordered a short row of storefronts. A watcher could stand somewhere within that the four-story building , the lights off, and survey the traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, going past the church.
Late Saturday afternoon, the cold of the year digging its spurs into yielding flesh. The light already in its last slanting hour.
Keel glanced about furtively. No other pedestrians before him, or on the opposite sidewalk either. Nevertheless the sensation of being watched, or of the possibility of being watched, persisted. He would not allow himself to stop and peer scan the windows of the buildings. That gesture would tell all; reveal him. Assure anyone watching that the words of the daring, dangerous message had struck home.
Keel walked on, taking his usual route. Whether he was observed or not did not change his internal calculus. Something would happen.
Some result would follow from this blatant call for redress — this demand for the most defined, determined, unrecallable of acts. Posted in the most public way.
Someone would do something.
He little suspected that he would be among the doers.
3. “Have a good day.”
Keel walked regularly to Independence Square, the place the neighborhood’s old-timers still called ‘the village.’
For fresh air, fitness, a change of scene; also because as an early retiree he needed a routine to fill his solitary days.
He walked to feel alive, stretch his legs, enjoy the rhythm of bodily movement, the mental effects the movement produced: the lifting of mood, the distraction from self, the quotidian pleasure of stimulating heart and lungs. It amazed him that so many people never did this, never discovered this simple, inexpensive (as in ‘free’) pleasure. People walked to and from the bus station; you could tell their destination by the time of day you saw them passing. Quite a few people walked dogs. He wondered if they knew their ‘pet’ was the excuse they discovered for taking themselves where they needed to go: outdoors.
Keel’s own, pet-less daily route was down Pike Street, a roadway he imagined had once been important because it was clearly part of an older village layout. You could tell from the bends. It curved slightly around some physical impediment from a time when it was easier for people to work around a landscape than to simply flatten it as they would later do in the machine age. He suspected Pike was a cart-way when animals were driven through the village (now modest city) of Monro. Today it was just another residential neighborhood street, houses fronting all along its progress as it doglegged from the village square into a network of wider roadways that led in turn to other parts of the city; and then to neighboring towns and cities. Keel walked Pike Street simply because it was the quickest route into the square, and also because it was his habit.
There, he dropped into General Purchase, the square’s biggest shop, to look at the news-sheets on sale on the racks and see whether the headlines told of anything different from the stories he glanced at that morning in the news-sheet delivered to his front door.
If he ran into someone he knew, the headlines would give them something to talk about.
As a rule, he did not run into anyone knew. Why would he? Who, after all, did he know?
A college teacher at a private institution in a neighboring district, Keel had retired some years before, when the college asked him to. Lost touch with his colleagues. This did not feel strange to him. Keel has always lived alone. Walked alone. Thought alone. He was brought up by his grandparents after his mother died: a strange prematurely scholarly boy. No siblings, more interested in books and his hobbies than in the other kids. He learned people’s ways; he studied them. Learned the rudiments of behavior. Forced himself to get over his shyness sufficiently for polite conversation. Learned the buzzwords.
“How ya doin’, what’s up, nothing much, what’s new with you, same old same old.” “Have a good day.” A good night. A good weekend. A good vacation. “Yeah, wuddya do?”
“Just took it easy, mostly. Visited the old folks. No, no thanks, I’m a little busy this weekend. Tonight? No, I’ve got some work to catch up on. I have to do my taxes. I’ve got some papers to grade. “How about those Cougars?” Those Bluebirds? The Coyotes?
His grandparents grew frail. Died the same year, within months of each other. People said that was usually the way it went. He had always visited on the holidays. When they were gone, of course, he stopped visiting. Once he drove all the way to see to the old place, rode down the street, cruised slowly past the house where he grew up — it look different (new owners painted it sort of pink) — went to the cemetery to visit their graves. What did he feel for them? The same embarrassed absence of emotion he felt at all social occasions, planned or unplanned interactions, standing on the outside of conversation circles at faculty gatherings, neighborhood encounters.
It’s the woman two houses down. He recognizes her face. Her name? Can’t remember. He stops, smiles. He taught himself to smile decades ago; practiced in the mirror. ‘OK, how are you? Guess I’ll be going.’ He does not look back. He tried to learn to tell jokes, but gave it up since something more than rote memorization appeared to be called for. He tried to have opinions: I think people should obey the rules. I think the law should be the same for everyone, rich or poor. I think we should all look out for others. Other people have rights too. Do unto others. It’s a free country, but that doesn’t give someone the right to do something that messes things up for everyone else.
Keel walked on alone. He was a day dreamer. His thoughts took off and went where they wanted to. He assumed this was normal. He did not see anything wrong with it. He did not miss running into anyone he knew. After all: who did he know?
One single element in this pleasant ritual he did not enjoy. The house with the dogs.
4. Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark
As a rule, Keel had no problem with dogs. His grandparents owned a couple of them when he was growing up. Walking the dog had been a childhood chore. As a young adult he watched his peers manage their dogs and picked up some useful habits from them as well as from his own experience of hiking country roads. If an unknown dog approached in an aggressive manner, barking and growling and making an ugly face in obedience to some cave-beast instinct of its own nature, he stooped and pretended to pick up a rock. The animal shied away. He also learned, if necessary, to tense his body into fighting posture, point aggressively at the dog’s gaping-ugly jaw and shout a command.
“Eat Chocolate!” he learned worked as well as “Go home!”
It was all in the body language, in the tone of voice. Keel could turn nasty — or at least look and sound nasty — if he had to.
Such encounters with territorial-protecting dogs were more likely to occur in rural or open districts than in a densely developed neighborhood such as his own. Yards were small in his west-side ‘lowlands’ section of town. Most of the houses were built during an era when demand for housing was high and expectations modest. The big house, large-lot developments built in more recent times in the areas outside the city were an abomination, Keel thought, consuming huge swaths of open space. In contrast, the small lots and modest quarters of his city neighborhood caused residents to be more aware of one another and curtail any activities neighbors would likely find bothersome. Proximity encouraged consideration. No loud family fights with the windows open. No raucous TVs laughter despoiling the soft evenings of summer. The activities of children were generally monitored by adults.
Disturbances were rare, and life was civil.
Except for the Dormands.
Their corner lot was larger than anyone else’s; their house twice the size. The place had a classic ‘American farmhouse’ look to it, with cute touches. Pink window shutters. Bits of faux ‘Colonial’ molding or ironwork. A wrap-around porch no one used. A large patriotic flag flying (or, generally, hanging limply) in the front yard every day, as if one could never love one’s country enough. Political signs, always for the wrong candidate, blazed. On one occasion, at least, Lady Dormand ran for a local office herself unsuccessfully — happily for Keel, who made certain to vote for her opponent.
These days the Dormands were, inevitably, “pigglies.”
None of this was a crime. The Dormands’ crime — against public order, as Keel saw it — was their determination to keep a pair of bored, uneasy canines penned up all day outdoors in a side yard along Pike Street. Where Keel passed by.
Today the dogs were out.
No surprise, they were out every day.
By the time he woke from his day-dream and realized where he was, it seemed cowardly in addition to inconvenient — an absurd surrender of a basic human right — to cross the street and continue. Why should he be forced to give up his citizen’s right to walk down a public way unmolested to avoid becoming the object of a nasty display by untrained, uncontrolled animals. He walked straight ahead. The dogs roused themselves from their canine stupor and began barking and snarling even before taking their first mad-dashing leaps toward the wire fence that separated yard from public space. Whoever approached, man, woman, child, or domestic mammal received the same treatment. The larger of the two enraged mutts, mostly white, semi-longhaired, threw himself at the chain-linked fence and tried to scrabble up it, all the while attacking the universe with bared teeth. The smaller, blacker one, leapt at its side, snagged the links with his claws and screamed its canine outrage. This display took place in exactly the same way every time Keel passed by.
Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark. The beggars are in town!
Keel was a peaceable, but not a passive person. And he was a citizen, not a beggar.
Nor was he an intruder. Who did the Dormands, master and mistress, think were walking past their house? Who were they to claim possession of the public sidewalk?
All this had happened dozens of times before, Keel determined to maintain his peaceable citizen’s right to walk down a public way, the dogs screaming their vile warning hatred, throwing themselves at the wire fence, trying to climb it to — apparently — get at him. Attack him.
“Fucking beasts! Fucking assholes!”
Oh, well. Too late to take it back.
He did not (not really) mean the dogs. Oh, he disliked them well enough for their mindless, machine-like conditioned responses. But it was the people, the so-called human beings, who allowed them to molest the innocent passerby in this way that he hated. Especially when that innocent passerby was Citizen Keel.
It was an engagement now. A quarrel.
He did what he never did before. He kicked the wire fence.
The fence rang out its complaint. The noise gave the dogs something to think about, a very brief pause for animals that were not strong on reflection. Soon enough they were barking again, their scrabbling claws against the metal diamonds of the fence, as they realized they had not been hurt by the blow of a kick against a fence. The smaller, blacker dog screamed a higher-pitch threat. The bigger, whiter dog snarled.
Keel stared at a line of round white landscaping stones, about the size of a baseball, lining the bottom of the fence. Thought of picking one up, but decided against it.
He swore at the dogs, not loudly. Aimed a few more kicks at their claws, then walked on, his mood thoroughly spoiled..
The next day, when he walked the same route, and when the same exact thing happened, Keel not only kicked the fence, he shouted.
“Keep your dogs inside! People have a right to walk on the sidewalk!”
No response came his way. He had no idea whether he could be heard inside the house. The day was mild, but the Dormands’ windows were closed. They probably had central A/C, one of those needless luxuries by which humankind was destroying the earth.
He shouted it again. “People have a right to walk here!”
The day after that when his eye fell on the white stones along the base of the fence, he picked one up. Maybe he would throw it at the dogs. Or, maybe, if he pounded it against a metal fence post, it would frighten them. The dogs saw him and bounded up and raced, howling their threats, throwing themselves against the chain links. Keel looked at the fence, he looked at the dogs. He raised his arm above his head, felt a brief spasm of resistance from a seldom used muscle, and hurled the rock.
His shoulder squealed with pain. He heard the rock hit.
He listened for the uniquely satisfying music of destruction. The chime of breaking glass.
Didn’t hear it. Paused a second, though the dogs still rioted, straining against the fence.
He was sure his missile had struck the house.
Keel walked smartly away. His arm hurt. The rest of him felt good, though a little voice told him what he had done was wrong, foolish.
And would have consequences.
5. ‘Nothing Is Sacred’
The weather intervened, interrupting his feud with the dogs.
Cold rain, occasional hail. The weather was more and more like that these days, Keel mused; the seasons increasingly mixed up. The storms stronger. The weather pattern changes more abrupt. Keel kept indoors, planned an early supper. He would take his book, a large tome about an ancient general and a war between two factions of a divided nation, to bed.
The day after that, with the weather improved, he allowed himself to take a slightly different route to the town square. Once again the message on the church message board had been tampered with. A tainted campaign, he thought, and a tampered sign.
He saw the words in a different way this time. Surely, the original outrage had been discovered by the church, and the letters rearranged to some more spiritual, or at least civil, use. Yet the provocateur had struck again, restoring his work — “Kill the Pig!” — though some of the spaces between the letters were different, wider. Was this the work of a single hand? Keel asked himself. ‘Graffiti Prophet’? Has he heard of such a figure, read about him somewhere? Or just dreamed him up. But there was no signing, no tagging, here. Just a few bare words.
An invitation to murder. A command? An appeal?
A portent… A kind of seduction? A subornation?
Seeing the message formulated a second time also suggested the possibility of a team at work. A group, an underground. A campaign pursuing a dangerous, extra-legal strategy. It was like putting a classified ad in a news-sheet: Dangerous Party Needed. No Questions Asked.
If he saw it, others were seeing it too.
On his way back through the square he walked on the opposite side of the street, his senses tingling. The presence of the message, the words he knew without looking were still there, heightened his sensory awareness. He fought the urge to examine his surroundings with every step. Was anyone else was passing by, anyone lingering outside a store, at the bus top, or in a car? There were always cars parked in the square! If you desired to watch what was happening in the square, you sat in your car without much likelihood of attracting attention. Were ‘they’ (the mysterious message-placers) watching to see if anyone showed interest in their advertisement? If anyone might be looking about for a way to apply?
Keel risked a glance across the street. Though he could not clearly read the words on the message board from that distance, he could tell from the pattern, those three short letter-groupings, space between them. No one was reading it. No one passing by.
He could not tell if any other eyes were trained on the sign.
He walked home a different way to avoid the Dormands’ dogs (and his own guilty conscience).
The next morning, as stories began to appear in the morning news-sheets reminding citizens that the Voting Days would soon be coming to Monro, he armed himself for the confrontation on Pike Street.
Keel did not possess anything like a weapon. But his eyes scanned sidewalk, the yards, the houses he passed, alert for the possibility. Another stone? Or a fallen branch this time. A discarded toy? Even plastic, he noted, handling a toy in the General Merchandise could be made hard these days. A child’s bat; would that do?
In this state of unease his thoughts kept drifting back to the terrible imperative on the church message board, and the irrational suspicion that his own thoughts were being articulated
— publicly — there. Why would anybody post a message on a church front? Who vandalizes a church, even if the violation, a re-arranging of letters on a sign, could easily be erased and the worlds put back to their former, harmless shape.
Nothing is sacred.
The words appeared in his thoughts, almost as if they had been put there by someone else.
But wasn’t that part of the message? Nothing is sacred, now that Mr. Pig is gaining control of the country. You think a little graffiti is bad? Wait till you see what happens when this guy, and his army of thugs, get rolling.
Still there was no sense of public awareness, was there? That people were waking to the danger? If such a thing as a national conscience existed, it had not stirred. That was the absurdity, the senselessness, of the way people lived, wasn’t it? Keel reflected. Something was coming, everybody knew it, and still everybody carried on their lives as if their way of life would never be challenged. As if they themselves would live forever.
Keel stopped looking for a rock or a piece of wood to pick up. What good would it do? Was he planning to defend himself from the pigglies with a stick in his hand? Besides — has he forgotten? — the Dormands’ house, the house of his enemies, had unbreakable windows.
On the news, that night, the remote camera delivered what, judging by the correspondent’s fraught expression, was judged shocking news. The local news station that — incredibly, yet routinely — occupied a full 24-hour schedule with breakdowns, bad moments, vehicular collisions, tragic accidents or various kinds, amateurish criminals, and the lowest common denominator observations and ‘chat’ available from gleaning regional events, had apparently sent a location crew to the site of the old church in Independence Square and was transmitting an image of its message board.
Somehow, Keel was surprised to see, the station had ‘got the story.’
Nothing alarming appeared on that board now. A new message, this week’s message, was declaring the theme of Sunday’s service, at the usual time, to be presided over by the parish’s own minister: “The Kingdom of God lies Within You.”
“But that’s not what this message board said,” interjected a voice from beyond the screen, “when Mrs. [Bridg? Keel didn’t recognize the name] passed by here last Saturday evening. According to Mrs. [name again; probably garbled] when she walked past the church the message board was stating something she found highly disturbing.”
The camera swung abruptly from the board to the upper body image of a blonde woman of middle years wearing a fashionable dark cloth coat. This must be Name. The microphone and the hands and a bit of the head of the ubiquitous on-location journalist also appeared in the shot, and now the camera shifted to catch the profile of the reporter’s features, a not very tall man with a youthful-looking brush cut and a slightly frantic determination to keep smiling.
“Was it, Mrs. Bridgler-er — ?” Brief hesitation.
Camera on her. Hint of surprise on local woman’s features.
“No, it wasn’t.” Spoken rapidly, as if to make up for the awkward pause.
“Tell us what you saw there.”
“Well.. the board… said..” Words slow now, as if remembering this advice to conceal nervousness. “Something that was…”
Search for more words; abandon search.
“Well not very nice. It said ‘Kill Mr. Pig.’”
A silence. As of letting the distressing encounter sink in.
“That was all? That was the whole message?”
“And what did you do?”
“I reported it to the police.”
Moving the microphone away from name’s face.
Omitting attempting the name again.
The camera obediently cut away to show us, instead of Mrs. Unpronounceable, the open-faced correspondent, hair trimmed neatly above the ears, standing bravely outdoors in the unmediated night.
Viewers may draw their own conclusion, his report seemed to say: Having seen something, she said something.
“That’s the story here, in Independence Square,” the reporter concluded. “A disturbing message, Darlen, to be found written outside a church.”
Darlen, in the studio, shots quick-cutting now, was prompt with her own observation. “That is disturbing, Chucker. Any response from the police yet?”
“Uh.” Blank look. Not expecting this? “They say they’re looking into it.”
In the studio, the camera remains on Darlen.
“So that’s the story tonight, from a quiet neighborhood in Monro. A disturbing statement to find on a church in Independence Square.”
The briefest of hesitations.
“‘Kill Mr. Pig,’” she recites, with a slight shake of the head, wings of dressed waves settling back over her ears, like obedient doves.
Her co-anchor, a guy (though he has seen him a thousand times, Keel cannot tell you his name) launches into a promo for the next story. The fire somewhere else.
But Darlen, surprisingly, interrupts him. “Sorry, Jax. but I think we’re hearing something more. Back from Independence Square again… Where that disturbing message was just found.”
Back to the square?
Keel, about to click off, enough screen time for one night, arrests his thumb. More graffiti?
A few seconds later, some slightly frantic ad-libbed stalling by Darlen, the screen does go back to location. But that location is different. The face and voice on the camera do not belong to ‘Chucker,’ the nicely coiffed little fellow Keel saw moments ago outside the church.
This time a woman is holding the mike.
“Mally,” the anchor says, “what’s happening there?”
She points the mike, the camera follows her gesture, zooms in.
It’s night. But the light is sufficient to show a house on a residential street.
“We’re here at the house on Pike Street where the incident took place.”
Pike Street? Keel goes rigid.
“…a disturbance… of some sort. Police are calling it vandalism.” .
The camera zooms into the shadows. The image takes a few seconds to sort itself out in Keel’s consciousness. A window.
A broken window.
He knows who broke it.
But then, he remembers. It didn’t break.
6. “We were targeted”
In the morning news-sheets, Keel read, leaning on the round kitchen table where he took his meals, city authorities appeared reluctant to draw any connection between the vandalism done to the church message board and the window broken a handful of blocks away. The mayor’s spokesman acknowledged that the Dormand family was known to support the leading candidate, Karol Pegasso, in the Voting Days for Chief Xec, but cautioned against any conclusion from that fact alone.
“It could be a random act of vandalism,” the spokesman said.
Asked how often residents of the city experienced rocks thrown through their windows, the spokesman replied (according to the news-sheet) that he had no figures to answer that question.
A local news-sheet, however, Indie Nooz, quoted the ‘victim’ of the window-breaking, a Mr. Gerald Dormand, as insisting that his home was intentionally vandalized. “We were targeted,” the paper quoted him. “I’m sure of it.”
When asked why he was sure, the response was less definite. Mr. Dormand, the sheet reported, decline to discuss the incident any further.
Local TV, however, was keeping the story alive. Having switched the machine on at a much earlier hour than usual, Keel watched with some emotion as the face of a man identified as Mr. Gerald Dormand appeared on his screen while the reporter posed the same question to him.
“You don’t think this was a random act, Mr. Dormand?”
Keel had caught a look at the man once or twice, a bulky figure with his back to the dogs, but always at a distance. He saw a white-haired man with a rectangular face about the size of a shoebox. His features did not look angry, or threatening; but rather glib. Keel sensed an aura of superiority, someone not intimidated by a TV camera, or a microphone. Some men, he knew, have hair that turns white early. The ‘gray eminence’ was a sign not of age or weakness, he reflected, but of status, authority.
“We know who did it,” Dormand told the reporter. “But we’re not saying, publicly.”
“It’s a private matter,” he continued, with the mild confidence of someone putting a matter to rest when asked the obvious question.
“It should be addressed privately.” His tone was conclusive.
Did he really know? Keel asked himself. How? Or was he bluffing, to discourage a second attack? It would be no surprise if the Dormands had connected the thrown rock with the ferocious barking that signaled a passerby. Did they know that the passerby was Keel? Had his passing already become a feature of idle conversation in the Dormand manse.
It was certainly possibly, he reflected with some embarrassment — the unease of the chastened — given that he had shouted angrily at the house. Something about the sidewalk. But had they seen him? He had certainly not seen them.
Once answer, of course, was surveillance.
But even that did not explain the unbreakable window. And, last night, the false claim of broken glass… But it should have broken, Keel thought, remembering the panic that filled him the moment he saw the stone hit glass.
Keel left the house earlier than usual, having decided on an errand.
The word ‘errand’ came from an old word meaning to “go out” into the world. That was what was meant by the phrase “knights errant,” dispatched into the world by (in the famous example) the legendary good King Windlesauce in order to confront injustice and put things right. So he gave himself an errand. If Dormand, he reasoned, knew the attack on his house related to his dogs, why did he persist in telling reporters that their house was “targeted” and imply they were being singled out because of their support for the popular candidate Karol Pegasso? He wasn’t shy about putting that big campaign poster in the front yard. Was he not clearly suggesting to the world (because that’s who watched their screens: the world) that supporters of ‘Mister Pig’ were under attack.
Or was it to divert attention away from the behavior of their unrestrained, aggressive dogs?
A universal perspective? Or a very small one? Maybe the real explanation was simply that annoying, day-after-day ‘private’ matter.
Not many public phones, Keel knew, remained the in the city.
These days people carried their own phones around with them. Much of the time they stared at them, even while crossing a busy street. Keel knew that he stood out by not owning a hand-held phone. His only phone connected to a wall. So what if that made him different? No helping it. Even if he owned one, he would not use it now.
Nor would he use his own ‘private’ home phone, long reduced in public parlance to the sub-normal generic ‘land line,’ as if the mobile, wireless phones other people carried on their persons had no connection to earth whatsoever, but merely floated around in the stratosphere. Perhaps they did. (Keel was not technically minded.) Perhaps their users floated around in the higher reaches of the firmament as well.
Perhaps, to continue the speculation once known as “idealism,” what the senses perceived was only a skin-deep apparition of their true selves floating about in the lower regions.
Nevertheless, assuming that some reality remained in the material world, where Keel’s body and mind spent most of their own time, he required the anonymity of a public phone because he did not wish anyone to know who was making this call.
Last time he looked there was a pay phone or two outside the bus station downtown. A lot of buses came there, a big transfer spot, so it was a useful place to put a public facility. He wasn’t sure how many people rode the buses any more, every year more cars clogged the streets, but the public phone might still be there. He liked that phrase: ‘public’ phone.
A public phone in a public place for the use of the public. To which he now walked on public ways.
Keel was standing up for the rights of the public.
This way of thinking was exactly opposite to the vision of the soon to be elected Pegasso and his band of oligarch gangsters, who wanted to privatize the country. They would own it. It would become the wholly owned entity of Pegasso Enterprises. His cronies would take their share. Between them all, their share would be all there was, he thought. We will all owe them money for walking down the street.
What else did Pig stand for? Cracking down on the ‘flexibles.’ Why did the public, or that part of the public roused by Pig, care so much about what people did in their private lives? The flexibles went one way one day, then perhaps went the other way the next day. Who cared? Men lived with men. Women with women. Why not? Some men managed, through processes Keel never spent any time seeking to understand, to turn themselves into women; and then, sometimes, back into men. And the reverse was true as well, he believed. But it was really none of his business. Some of the flexibles, he had read, signified who they were (at present moment) by painting one side of their face and leaving the other side in a natural skin tone.
Lighter skin tones still dominated his society, of course, a preference Keel failed to understand. In fact, if he were honest, persons of a very dark skin tone often stimulated in him a profound urge to weep with joy and desire. Emotions he automatically repressed, because Keel was a wholly undemonstrative person.
But while skin tone was rarely mentioned, the behavior of the flexibles was a continual source of discussion in the media. The same flexible individual, he read, would unpaint one side and paint the other side instead. Color choices could be involved as well. Keel did not see how anyone like himself could be expected to keep these possibilities ‘straight,’ but maybe the point was if you were not a member of that psycho-sexual universe you never would know what was going on.
That was fine with him. He had no desire to know. It was none of his business!
Leading Candidate Pig wanted to put a stop to all of this.
It would be illegal to paint your face, he vowed, when he was in charge. Processes leading to transformational gender would all be banned. Instead government policies would promote traditional inter-sexual pair bondings, including bonuses for producing children within these bonds. One of his key supporters’ proposals, in fact, called for requiring couples seeking legal recognition of their bonding to sign agreements committing themselves to producing the national average family size. The average bonded family included 2.4 children, Keel knew. Who was going to be responsible for that .4?
The campaign’s bad ideas bedeviled his walk-a-day thought stream even when he tried to stop thinking of them. Keel was day-dreamer, and his regime of daily walks generally launched flights of musing fantasy. This day, however, he had business to do, and the business weighed on his mind, causing his thought balloons to plummet.
The public phones, two of them, were still there, bolted into the concrete outer walls of the bus station. No pretense of privacy was afforded their users any longer. No ‘booth.’ (A booth afforded privacy; did human beings no longer seek privacy?) No plastic roofing shell. Only a thin shelf made of what appeared to be a mottled aluminum, or some such alloy, installed directly beneath the wall-mounted push-button phone, furnished the user with a surface to put a piece of paper on and read or write a number. Or an address book, perhaps; a folded newspaper. Any of the paper-based products of a pre-digital world. Only holdouts like himself made use of so old-fashioned a utility as a public phone.
Keel put a coin, five times larger than what the calls used to cost, into the slot. Then, as people still said, he ‘dialed a number.’ How odd; how quaint. People used to say “drop a dime.” Do they still say that?
He called the city police department and asked the dispatcher (another old term? did police still use radios to ‘dispatch’ patrol cars?) if he could find out whether any complaints had been lodged about the behavior of dogs at a certain address.
The dispatcher’s voice, suppressing a sigh, told him that question would have to go to the department’s animal control officer. Keel, prepared for something like this, promptly told the man that he was at a public phone — the dispatcher appeared to be surprised: “a what?” he asked — and requested the dispatcher to make the transfer to the animal controller for him. He suspected that the police, like most arms of government, preferred you to make the second call yourself.
It made them appear busier than they actually were on a Wednesday afternoon.
Keel kept his voice humble: poor old guy needing a little help. The dispatcher agreed to transfer his call.
“I don’t know if they’ll answer,” he cautioned.
The call was answered.
A woman, by her voice. It was interesting, a fleeting thought registered to be scraped for meaning later, that Keen could almost always correctly identify a female voice. If people merely “texted” each other all day, instead of actually using their voices, did that make them less adept at identifying the gender, age, status, and role of unfamiliar voices?
When he posed his question
— “Can you tell me if there have been complaints about the behavior of the dogs at 228 Kent Road?” —
the officer, or assistant, who hadn’t self-identified beyond a rapid mutter, replied that she didn’t know.
“Can you find out?”
There was a pause, then something like a mumbled expletive, and then the voice confided to him that she was busy doing her job.
“The police told me, when I asked them, that I had to bring this matter to the animal control officer.” He was careful to keep his voice plausible, matter-of-factual.
“That’s not me.”
“But this is the animal control department, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But she’s not here.”
The animal officer was a ‘she.’ It surprised him, for some reason.
“When will she be back?”
He could wait around. Get a coffee somewhere, then return and call again.
A sigh, wholly audible this time. “Who knows?”
He was a little shocked. Did underlings routinely share their frustrations with their bosses to the general public?
“Ah. Then when should I call back?”
The voice volunteered, in the tone of someone offering a rare favor, to take his number.
“No thanks,” he replied. “Can you just tell ‘her’ what my question was? You took down the address I asked you about, didn’t you?” When she did not reply at once, he gave it to her again. “228 Kent Road.”
The Dormands’ corner property bordered Pike Street, where they kept their dogs, but fronted Kent Road. He had looked up the street number.
“My question is ‘any complaints about the dogs there?’”
The assistant murmured. Hmmed. He was tempted to offer to help with the spelling.
Keel reiterated his intention to call back, and thanked her.
Then he ‘rang off.’ Where did that expression come from, since nothing ‘rang’ when you hung up the phone, did it?
As he walked away, a bus pulled in thirty feet away, and two or three people stepped down and scurried into the station, where it was warm. It was winter, Keel reminded himself, though not that cold. He made a casual scan of his surroundings. The backs of a block of shops that fronted on the avenue. Side roads on either side of the station.
No one around.
A second bus, a thing of grimy metal from another part of the city, pulled slowly into the drop-off circle.
But he could spy no one who was merely standing around, waiting or appearing to, with a view of the public phones.
What, he asked himself, was he worried about? Surveillance? A camera?
It was the graffiti. The feeling he had of being watched when he walked through the square. Or the window that didn’t break.
He shook his head and walked off toward a dismal looking coffee spot on the other side of the parking lot. It was the Dormands, he decided, their claim of being “targeted,” and the tenor of the times that was getting to him.
After a few minutes sitting over coffee in a largely deserted shop, one of the dying BuckStir franchises (the coffee was two bucks now; their day was over), he walked back to the public phone and fished another five-dimer piece from his pocket, dialed a different number, and took a deep breath.
A recorded message answered his call, offered a menu of options. Keel chose one and punched the numbers. He was not sure it was the right one, but it would get him into the nooz-room.
A human voice answered, female once more. He asked if he could speak to the reporter (he remembered the byline) who had written the story about the vandalism to a house on Kent Road.
The woman asked him to wait a moment. Fifteen or twenty seconds later her voice came back and told him that Mr. Ross was not at his desk.
He asked her to take message.
“All right. If it’s short.”
It was. “Tell him to look into the dogs at the Dormands’ house.”
But he declined to leave his name or number because he did not wish to be connected to any inquiry into the Dormands’ dogs. Was he afraid? Or just being cautious?
Nor did he mention — to anyone — seeing the tampered message on the church message board.
Anyway, who would he tell?
7. “Crimes against property”
He was glad that evening that he had merely left a message at the Monro Daily rather than spoken in person to the reporter. He was cautious by nature, but his loss of composure around the Dormands’ dogs resulting in a childish indulgence of temper — disgraceful act —
made him anxious. Was something happening to him?
Watching Pig denounce “crimes against property” on the TV-nooz only made him worry more.
“Crimes against property,” he heard a bland nooz-room voice declare on the Headline Nooz, “should no longer be considered minor infractions.”
The local source for this point of view, someone the station considered worthy of interviewing, did not bother to credit this point of view to candidate Pegasso. He made it sound as if he had just arrived at the viewpoint on his own.
Waking up from a post-luncheon nap, pounding on the desk, and uttering a blast against the depravity of ‘crimes against property.’
Keel didn’t recognize the man, but he knew he was one of ‘them.’ He could tell from a glance at the man’s little pigglie eyes, which never moved, never looked directly into the eyes of whoever was looking at him or gauged a response from reporter, cameraman, anyone in the studio, but gazed persistently at the unseen, but logically deducible thousands of viewers.
Middle-aged, graying at the edges, features frozen except for the mechanical movement of the mouth offering its dull, depressingly rote-learned train of tortured syllables, whipped into shape by some planful hand behind the scenes.
After the brief interview with the Pig supporter — Bent Snudrich (could that really be his name?), city councilor from some other district — Headline Nooz went directly to footage of the rally in which the Pig’s own voice could be heard just beyond the range of easy intelligibility, hammering home the enormity of crimes against property in his characteristic aggressive staccato.
It was clearly Pig, though his face, of course, was never seen in close-up. It never was. Everyone was used to that by now.
“Crimes against another person’s property,” the anchor (Keel could not remember his name? Jecker?) now reported, speaking over the unintelligible ranting, “leading candidate Karol Pegasso publicly declared today at a spontaneous rally in Bellesview” — a district that not very far away, especially as the campaign was heading north — “are just as serious as crimes against human beings, because….”
The newsreader paused, as if he too was wondering what the rationale would prove to be. A light went on in the man’s features: Here comes the answer on the teleprompter…
“they undermined another home-person’s ability to take care of himself and his family. Personal responsibility for one’s own well being was a fundamental pillar of any healthy community.”
There. The face looked relieved.
The nooz-reader composed an expression of conscientious approval of received wisdom. But then, as Keel watched horrified, the man’s face twisted into an approximation of the leading candidate’s own denunciatory certitude and delivered Mister Pig’s concluding coda:
“A crime against one man’s property underlines the security of all! We stand for security! Property! Prosperity! The people want change!”
“A strong country,” the face on the screen wound up, morphing back into something of its former banal benignity, “requires strong laws.”
Keel found himself wondering what sort of punishment Chief Xec Pig would consider appropriate for throwing a stone at a neighbor’s window. Considered abstractly, the act struck him as more nefarious than it had felt in the moment: an act of spontaneous payback, striking back at a house-owner’s repeated acts of negligence in allowing his dogs to set themselves on a passersby.
It had felt like “rough justice.”
Yet judged by itself, the act appeared to be a sort of invasion of privacy, a kind of break-in, almost a home invasion. Not merely a destruction of private property on which you could put an appropriate price tag and make the necessary amends, but more like a violation of a sacred principle. A man’s home — a family’s home — was its sanctuary.
What, Keel asked himself, was so enduring about the concept of ‘home’?
It was the idea of safety. It was where you felt safe, with the drawbridge up. Where you should feel safe.
That night he had trouble falling asleep. Still bothered by what he had done, even more than the day before, he insisted in his thoughts (as if to shout down the part of him that kept objecting) that he should be able to feel safe walking down the sidewalk. For that matter as a citizen he should also feel safe supporting one candidate for office, and criticizing another, voting as he wished, speaking out when he wanted, petitioning his government, and opposing policies or plans announced as the goals by a putative (‘inevitable,’ everyone was now saying) new administration.
Did he in fact feel safe doing any or all of these?
What was keeping him awake, he realized, was not the image and voice of the leading candidate Karol Pegasso, neither of which were ever clearly or completely projected over the airwaves, but his supporters’ notions of what he stood for.
Pig was not even in office yet, but the climate of his once proud country, the Commonhope of UZ, had already changed and was continuing to change, worsening, throughout the voting year. And was getting still worse now that the nation’s chief electors, the Sacred Commission, appeared to be getting close to proclaiming a victor.
Maybe, Keel brooded, it was the candidate’s treatment of opponents during the campaign that worried him. Frightened him.
Pegasso openly impugned their character. He accused them of breaking laws, even obscure laws: Jay-walking on the way to their Assembly offices. Hiring unregistered persons to cut their lawns or paint their patio a trendy antique green.
And it was not simply the opponents themselves he attacked, but members of their family, slandering their parents, close friends, staff members, law school classmates, neighbors.
The father of a candidate from a district far to the south (one of the many Keel had never visited), so Pegasso imperiously declared, was implicated in the assassination of a national leader many decades earlier. The claim was a fiction; a long-disproved calumny. But the kind of libel that could not be addressed legally because the victim, the father, was long dead. The assassination of a popular leader had been the subject of wild theories for many years, speculations that stirred a miasma of dark possibilities in the public’s mind. Had agents of a foreign government killed him? Had members of his own government, threatened by his policies, pulled off a secret coup d’etat? Had soldiers of criminal organizations, fearing the loss of impunity purchased by secret deals in previous administrations, decided this new president was too independent? Or had a single wealthy opponent, the opposing candidate’s father, perhaps, hired an assassin?
Or none of these explanation. Just a lone nut.
This dark deed, however accomplished, still disturbed the nation’s sleep after half a centur — and here was the proof: Keel lying awake thinking about this hoary national tragedy as if it were the sort of great theatrical work he used to teach in his Classical Studies courses.
An old anxiety stimulated by new fears brought on by the claims of a candidate for the nation’s highest office who seemed to know what ordinary people, plain unhappy people in their dull unsophisticated millions, were thinking.
A candidate whose public conduct suggested that only one person’s thoughts and ideas and opinions mattered. His. Pig’s. That there was only one right way to think about things, to talk about them. Only one direction to lead the nation: his.
Opponents, and organized opposition, melted away.
Competitors for office ran off to their own safe corners, their hideaways, whining like beaten curs. He showed them up for stumble-bums. They began to look ridiculous. They dropped out of the contest and you didn’t hear from them again for months at a time, as if they were now avoiding at all costs the very nooz media they had previously courted.
Had they been threatened somehow? Keel wondered. The national mood, the hunched-shoulder atmosphere in the media and even, he sometimes felt, in the air of the familiar streets he had walked for years, scented of unexpressed worries, inchoate trepidations, nameless fears.
And the winner of this disgraceful contest of denunciations and innuendoes has not even taken power!
Unlike many of his opponents, Karol Pegasso had no governmental power base of any sort. Where had his power to cow the opposition, to kindle dark emotion in his followers come from?
It was as if Meinstern’s theory of the relat-ability of time-space threaded its way through the psyches of millions of people. Time-space, Keel understood, bends toward the heaviest gravitational force.
The thoughts and behavior of millions of people now appeared to be warping in a single direction to accommodate the force, the presence, of a single man.
The new leader. The Pig.
8. The Fall of Kevin O’Rhule
Keel dreamed. He was a dreamer.
In his dream that night, he heard a voice speaking, telling a story. The dream intensified, drew him in. The deeper he went into it, the deeper he sank, drawn down as if into a whirlpool of magnetic imagery, sea monsters and old faces, spars from shipwrecks, treasure maps, undergraduate papers, hidden memories, seashells of desire taking him deeper, deeper, until — as if from the other side of some cataclysmic waterfall — the voice spoke, clearly…
… as if someone stood over him in a closed room and aimed words into his ear:
“Everyone was equal, but Mr. Pig was more equal than anyone else. He marched into the capital one day at the head of a vast army of the unappreciated and demanded to be given the keys to the sacred altar. He denounced the leadership of Kevin O’Rhule, and the era of peace and plenty that wise and modest man had presided over, shaking the order of the world like a giant shaking out a blanket. The pattern of light upon darkness was now reversed to reveal the checkerboard of the cloth’s other side, in which the dark squares now sat upon the light. That which had appeared fine and fair and upstanding was revealed to be poor and vice-ridden and driven by lower instincts. The lieutenants of O’Rhule were denounced and placed under guard; no one knew where the great man himself had disappeared to. Tribunals were erected, and many were imprisoned. Others who worked under the old regime, the now fast-tarnishing Golden Age of O’Rhule, were revealed to be profiteers, special pleaders, mere time-servers, men of lower character, and nasty women. They formed an unimpressive army of the discarded.
“The new class rising, greeted by outpourings of the forgotten people, men mostly, though many women also displayed their mannishness by behaving more ignorantly and rudely than their male companions. Such women as these favored shirts and jerseys with the mocking legend ‘I’m with Weakling!’ and sometimes dragged small children behind them by their hair. They gathered, the followers of the Pig, in huge campfire rallies, consuming entire woodlots to keep their fires burning — the roadside greenie-thorny vines (it was said) pulled down trunks and branches at their command, cutting down the trees in the public parks — and trees could be heard crying out in the wilderness for the loss of their brethren. But the capital of UCanna, Heyfolk, where those who had grown fat and sleek in the prosperous days of O’Rhule paid little mind to the advance of the Pigsters, whose approach was rumored by flocks of angel-crows leaving early (as some observers noted) for their winter homes far to the south….
“The new man’s advance was funded by huge withdrawals from the fortune of Pigster-Procto Mega-Corp, known to investors as Animal Firm, but at first little attention was paid to this gathering danger in the capital. There folk turned up their noses, made jokes about the bad smells that sometimes reached their noses on the wind blowing from the prairies. The smoke of all those campfire thunder-fests, as they came to be known, at which the Pigster himself thundered forth denunciations, stuck pins in large mockeries of the effigies of Chancel-Hold Favus Fynes and his Counsel of Economies, of whom the mighty of Animal Firm disapproved, calling them betrayers, race traitors, Glad-fools, Weeping Innards, Despoilers of Racial Purity, and Drive-Heads and Dome-worshipers… even though the Pigster himself had erected many such domes, including Pig Tower, the home of the First Family of Animal Firm, Mister Pig, his pigstress, and his beautiful pink children.
“It was only when the fires of the Forgotten People smoked on the horizons of the Capital’s Zine Towne that the regime of O’Rhule began to smell trouble, and not merely the posturings of those who claimed to be ‘left behind.’
“That night in the garden of the Capitoline, the graceful retreat the aging leader had built outside the city, O’Rhule gathered his appointed successors, the great secular clan of praters and believers, fund-procurators, tribunes of the various peoples of the Diverse Collation, many Deep Pockets among them as well. There, among the formal flowerbeds and the charmed voices of the fountains, he asked them for their opinions of the danger.
“What did they make of this strange, ill-smelling phenomenon? What ill tidings scented on the wind?
“Refugees were pouring in, they told him.
“Villages were burned.
“Other nations across the sea have hitherto been overwhelmed.
“‘What should he do?’ the old Lord of the Realm asked the dour faces about him. No one had any idea….
“They avoided one another’s eyes and meditated on plans for escape.”
In the morning, the pre-morning, the hour before dawn, Keel woke, remembering the impression left by the voice of the dream very clearly, but not the words the voice said. He knew how the dream had made feel, however, because he still felt that way.
Disturbed. Frightened. In the grip of a malaise he could not shake off. Sleep-walking through life.
The dream, or its voice, had bored its way inside him. He knew he would not sleep any more. He lay in bed, trying to remember the particulars of the dream more clearly, willing the sky to lighten.
Keel dreamed regularly; every night, he believed. Sometimes the weight of his dreams left him sad, downcast, depressed for the first hour or two after waking. But his turned on the radio, made his coffee, and the fog of inchoate mental burden slowly lifted as he read the morning news-sheet.
This dream, however, the Vision of the Fall of the Capital, as he thought of it now, was more upsetting than any dream he could recall. The strongest echo of the sensations he had felt now lay in sounds. Some of the words — dream words; words that filled his thoughts once he woke from the dream — still lingered in his consciousness when he woke in the dark and he had scratched them on the back of a bookmark by the narrow light of a bedside table lamp, words pulled from the rush of swirling sensation that felt like a whirlpool dragging a ship to its underwater doom.
“What doom was that? That which the dream foretold? Or the darkness of time itself? That inevitable slippage of time that drip by drip dragged all sentient creatures down in the end.”
The tone of the dream voice and a vague impression of recollected images — mostly smoke and fire — suggested a kind of vision. Keel was not given to visions, at least not by light of day. He was a daydreamer, not a visionary. Today, by ‘visionary’ people meant anybody who came up with a new idea, generally one that solved a technical problem. He was certainly not that kind of colloquial visionary either.
Visions, as he once read and was persuaded to agree, had long ago disappeared from human experience, at the dawn of what was still called ‘modern times.’ Possibly because the ever greater concentration of human presence and activity in our societies — our industry, our science, our busy-ness — infringed on the experience of highly concentrated isolation required to produce them. Or perhaps the gods simply turned their backs on human affairs altogether, having lost interest in the unsteady allegiances of mortals.
Even the ancients had pondered this question, Keel brooded, over a morose breakfast of Krifties, his unsweetened regular day-starter. “The Gods abandon Anthony”: he recalled this poser from his long-ago studies of the ancient civilization, the ‘Classical world’ he had once pecked away at like a scientist of words.
Had any rationale ever been offered for this divine desertion? The assumption being that the gods had earlier ‘chosen’ Anthony. Why? Were the gods simply amusing themselves by meddling in human affairs. The gods, Keel took it, required entertainment. The ‘Rise of Anthony, Hero of Romulo’ (he speculated) was a series they had tuned into for a decade or so, then they got tired of him. He lost them with the tired ‘romantic destiny’ plot. Who was this upstart Cleopatra anyway? She worshipped other gods, not the right gods, and, besides (judging from her chroniclers), she talked too much.
That might have been reason enough to abandon their onetime favorite, back when the gods regularly meddled with human affairs. In these later millennia, when supra-human vision was denied all mortals by their indifference, humans were wholly responsible for the well-being of their society. Or its lack.
But if you couldn’t blame divine favor (or interference) for what happened down here, then what forces were driving Pig and his ‘Animal Firm’ irresistibly to triumph after triumph?
9. No Dogs
Of course, there was a simple, reasonable, psycho-babbling explanation for the state of mind that could imagine so dire a scenario as the ominous dream-vision inflicted upon the aging Keel, and that so disturbed his waking thoughts.
So later that day, around his customary mid-to-late afternoon departure time, Keel set off once more to confront the charged setting that had likely, in some complicated way, provoked his darkly visionary dream.
He squared his shoulders, closed the storm door carefully behind him, and set off down Yester’s Lane for Pike Street on his usual route.
Should he not alter his direction this day, and instead of turning down Pike Street take some other some street that would bypasses the scene of his crime? Change his routine? — if only by a block or two. He could walk toward the square on a parallel public way. It would take him only a few minutes longer to reach the square and might even prove stimulating in its offer of fresh, though likely modest, sights and sensations. Wouldn’t that be the sensible thing to do?
Of course, it would.
It would also mean that the Dormands had won.
That they had outlasted him and successfully asserted their right to let their indolent, irresponsible style of dog ownership control the quality of public use of the sidewalk adjacent to their property, reducing that quality several degrees below miserable and therefore rendering this piece of public passage way effectively unusable. And, therefore, also challenging Keel’s long-held assumption that free passage on public ways was one of those unenumerated citizens’ rights people were entitled to exercise simply by being human beings.
No, he decided, shaking his head, shouting down the inward voices of moderation that told him he had made a mess and now was preparing to step in it.
No, he would not give in. A citizen was entitled to think his own thoughts. And take his own walks.
Mind made up, Keel walked on, telling himself to expend no further thought on the impending contretemps. Letting his mind drift: His mind refused to drift.
He crossed a street and knew he was on the block where the lovely Dormands lived.
Of course, their dogs would be there. They were always there.
They were not there.
He stopped dead, without intending to.
He turned his head to stare frankly through the wire fence. Some toys; dog toys. Something made of red plastic, perhaps just small enough for a big dog to get his jaw around. A few black plastic pots, probably for garden use. The wooden railing of a low inner fence line that somewhat hindered a view of the lawn space reserved for the house’s human occupants, off-limits to the canine. And the sparse, flattened green space given over to the dog’s daily tedium, the ‘lack-of-exercise’ yard in which they waited all day for an opportunity to express their stored, anxious, neglected irritation on innocent passersby.
Their absence, it was clear, meant only one thing. Could only mean one thing.
They knew the dogs were the reason someone had thrown a rock at their house.
Did they also know who that someone was?
Once again that night the local network TV-nooz compelled him.
He didn’t wait for the news hour to show up on the ‘leets’ station — that new term of abuse the Pegasso party brain-washers used to deride people like himself — probably derived from the old saw “a leetul went a long a way.” People who had unusual habits and tolerant opinions of others’ life-choices. People who thought they knew better than ‘ordinary’ people because they read more. Because they had been educated more deeply. They read big city nooz-docs. They knew the names of famous (or once famous) writers, or social thinkers, or philosophers. They knew that cities had been designed with various kinds of green spaces because their presence soothed the spirit and inspired the mind. They knew that “scientia est potentia”; that thought, the life of the mind, made societies healthier, more alive, more active. They went to the theater, at least once in a while, and visited cultural capitals at least once or twice in their lives. Keel had once stood on line one day in the great capital city of UCanna for an hour to buy a ticket to see a serious play written by an author of national repute. The experience stayed with him. Keel had also once boarded a flying machine so he could go to the live theater every night for a week in Landivium, the old country across the water.
Of course not everyone had the good fortune, the means, the opportunity, to pursue such activities. But even his city of Monro had a modest symphony orchestra. Why weren’t all the seats filled for every single public performance? In recent years the orchestra had reduced the cost of admission to donation-only — pay only what you chose — in an effort to increase attendance. And still there were as many empty seats as filled. And you could see examples of all the arts on the screen. Everybody had a screen, didn’t they? Did the people who voted for Pig refuse to watch the stations that broadcast concerts and dance and works of serious theater on principle, simply because people they hated, people like Keel, did? The leets. Was it a crime against ‘the people’ now, the ‘real people’ of his once proud, no longer quite so flourishing nation to be interested in the greater world? In history? In the problems of the future? In what scientists (did ‘real people,’ however, still understand that scientia kept them fed and healthy) were learning from excavating the deep past of the people-species? Or in what they suspected might lay beyond our own planet’s cozy little neighborhood in a still expanding cosmos?
‘Real people’? Keel thought with a start. Listen yourself: Was he something other than ‘real’ himself? ‘Real people,’ he brooded, tuning in with new care to his cascading thoughts, hated people like him, people who (unlike them) knew that one’s own little planet held a host of different belief systems, values, ‘explanations for the existence of people-intelligence,’ the mysteries of which dwarfed the little that was known for certain.
So there was no hope, he decided at last, of learning about ‘them’ if he continued paying attention only to ‘us.’
He resolved to abjure the comfort of watching nooz on the sophisticated station (for people like us) with its international stories and ‘expert’ guest commentators in favor watching
local-people nooz, on the local TV station.
Besides, he now had others reason to tune in to local news. He wished to find out whether investigators had learned anything more about the disturbing graffiti on the subverted church message board. And were they still looking into the attack on the Dormands’ house?
That night Headline-Nooz was filled with local or semi-local disasters or near-misses. A man with a knife tried to rob a convenience store on a strip of relatively dark road between the city and one of its smaller neighbors. The clerk had only a few metrics in the register at that time of night but he was gathering it up for the man with the knife when a couple of customers entered the shop and spooked the would-be robber, who took to his heels. Words like ‘lucky’ and ‘happy coincidence’ were tossed about on the screen and echoed in the newsroom.
Then the show flew to another locus, where a smoky fire in a backyard shed drew firefighters to the scene, who donned their heavy suits of armor and put out the small blaze before it could threaten nearby houses. Neighbors speculated on the cause.
“Smoking in the shed.”
No political stories, Keel thought. Nothing about ‘real people’ versus the ‘leets.’ When, abruptly, the studio host-reader’s mien changed, as it the teleprompter was now prompting in large black letters, singed in their corners and smoking faintly.
10. “There will be change!”
“Everyone knows,” the studio reader intoned, “that change is hovering in the wings in the form of Karol Pegasso. Today a spokesman for the leading candidate promised that ‘Changes will come. You can rely on it.’ But, the spokesman said, it was not yet time to make to make any specific plans public. Details were still being ‘ironed out.’”
Did those details involve people like him? Keel wondered.
Would he be ironed out?
Then, abruptly, the camera cut to a crowded room apparently bursting at its seams with excited bodies packed closely together and making a lot of noise. From the look of the place, a bland function room, it was a convention of some sort. The camera, though evidently far off, focused on a few men surrounding a mike. Then a lot of chanting and foot-stomping told Keel he was watching another rally for the man now widely described as the ‘Leading Candidate.’ He missed hearing the name of the location (they all looked the same). The Pig’s bodyguards kept the cameras to the back of the hall, so the shots of the speaker at the podium were always a little vague, a little shadowy. Everybody knew of Candidate Pegasso, but nobody got a very good look at him.
Anyone who approached with a cameras in his hands found someone standing between him and the candidate. Now ‘the candidate on-verge-of-election.’ He was a voice, not a face. And the voice was a species of hoarse bellow, uttering a rhythmic staccato: words fired off like machine gun bursts.
“There will be changes. There must be changes. Change will come. The people demand it. So the change must come!”
A booming shout at the end of the cadence.
A lot of noise at these rallies, Keel reflected, but very little got said.
Then something, abruptly, without warning, something inexplicable happened inside him, and Keel heard what the others, the people at the rally, were hearing. Some force or power outside himself, perhaps emanating from the scene transpiring on his television screen, tore open an interior or liminal scrim, a protective boundary in his own mind, and the real words, the real scene, became clear to him, forming in his mind with no defending ego to keep them at bay. Stunningly, overpoweringly, heady beyond reason or restraint, an exhilaration that overwhelmed any checkpoint of his rational consciousness poured the hot lava of desire, of orgiastic Dionysian ecstasy, into his brain.
“We will take back what is ours! We will take back the flag!”
Huge booming shouts, waves of sound — was some noise amplifying device at work? Some reverb machine, like the device an electric guitarist controlled with his foot?
People shouted, but appeared also to laugh and cry.
“We will take back the mansions! The palaces! The chariots of power!”
Waves of hysteria.
“We will bring down the heavens and put them here on earth!”
Images of wind and starlight blew through Keel’s state of wonder.
“We will knock down the old walls that keep the people from the power — “
Shouts: “Knock them down! Knock them down!”
“ — and build up the new ones!”
Rhythmic chants: “New Walls! Build them up! Build them up!”
“Beautiful walls,” the speaker promised. “Filled with bones and skulls! With shining jewels for eyes that watch in the night and keep the shadows away!”
“We will take back our silver and gold! Our diamonds and our jewels!
“We will take back — ourselves!
“We want our humanity back!
“We know where it’s gone! Where they’ve taken it — and we want it back!
“We know who it really belongs to. It belongs to UZ!
“They stole it — And we know where they have it!
“They’re keeping it hidden, keeping it all for themselves, leaving us only our animal skins — our fingers and toes — !
“Those nails and teeth!” Still louder. “Show them to me, people!”
Teeth emerged from evil grins. Nails grew into claws as hands waved in the air.
“That’s right! There they are! You got ’em — We need ‘em! We need ’em all!”
Hands wriggled. Cheers ballooned. Bounced off the walls. Ricocheted. Echoes running into echoes, like waves in a tank of water.
“That’s how we tear apart the phony curtains and fake screens, the lying words they hide the country behind! The false fronts of the big shots! The leets!
“We knows it’s still back there! The big prize behind the curtains! Behind all the phony talk and the bullshit explanations! And we’re gonna take it back! UZ! Our country!
“The Country of UZ!”
Keel came back to himself, oddly breathless. He blinked. Felt an urge to drink some water; to urinate.
Is that what people watched, and heard, on their TVs every night?
He shook his head, in denial. He must have been awake-dreaming. He knew he did that. But when he tried to recall in detail what had been running through his brain, his senses,
he could not remember precisely what he was awake-dreaming about… It was often like that. Something took hold of his waking, front-brain consciousness while the rest of his body puttered along smoothly on automatic pilot.
Happily, it didn’t appear that he’d missed anything important. Nothing of interest was happening on his TV screen. He watched the local network’s ho-hum nooz a little longer. Nothing tonight about the disturbing sign on the message board.
Nothing about the rock thrown at the Dormands’ house.
Keel started to rise from his chair, slowly, a little stiff. But something stopped from leaning forward and turning the TV off.
At the very last-second end of the half-hour segment that inevitably preceded the extra-long commercial break, the screen stopped in its tracks — went black — and then instantly came back to a remote shot of a correspondent (Chucker?) standing beside a police officer, both figures posed in front of a cruiser that appeared to be parked on a tree-lined road.
The report (the correspondent explained) concerned a woman, presumed elderly, possibly clouded in mind, believed to be wandering after dark in the woods of Green Hills Park.
“Lost,” Keel heard the officer say abruptly, biting off the word as if regretting it. Then adding, “We think she may be lost.”