Notes for the Leader — II
click here for Notes for the Leader — I
He looks peaceful, as one should when dead. I noticed a slight smile on his face when I went up to the casket to pay my respects. The dreadful wail of the widow fills the funeral hall behind us. We’ve all taken to drink, passing around a flask, well out of view of the widow and the family.
“This is fine whiskey,” say Colonel Kim.
“Thank you. It is not American,” I reply.
“Where’d you get it?”
“From that Chinese guy on People’s Struggle Road.”
“He’s very good at smuggling in American liquor,” says Kim.
“He is.” I reply, raising the flask in toast and taking a gulp.
“Poor Min,” I say. I pass him the empty flask, shaking it to show him I’ve just finished off the last drop. “As lowest ranking officer, you miss out on the booze but have to carry the flask.”
Min calls us a bunch of assholes.
“I heard he was found in a whorehouse,” says Colonel Kim, probably a bit too loud.
“Yes, he was. However, truthfully, he died working diligently at his desk,” says a lieutenant.
“If he died at his desk, why was he found at a whorehouse?” asks Min.
“Remember, officially it was not a whorehouse,” I tell Min.
“Min,” says Colonel Kim, “common sense would say that if you die at your desk then you are probably going to be found at your desk. We are not dealing with common sense. We are dealing with the truth.”
“What was the cause?” asks a Lieutenant with a crooked nose and thinning hair.
“Truthfully? A heart attack. Judging from the man’s girth, I’m inclined to believe that truth too,” says Kim.
The widow lets out another wail in the background and we turn our heads slightly aback for a second.
“I heard it was the whorehouse on People’s Road,” says another colonel.
“Officially that whorehouse has been shut down by our compatriots, the municipal authorities. In all honesty, however, I think you’re right.” I say.
“You know, he was a pretty good looking officer when I first knew him, before he packed on the weight. It was only in the last few years that he had to resort to the whorehouse,” Kim says.
“Who will be taking his position?” asks Min.
“Perhaps you, my buttercup. How would you like to run our Strategic National Electronic Espionage Unit?”
“I have no experience in computers or coding,” Min replies in a deadpan fashion.
“Judging from the former head of the unit, who now lies in that casket, I don’t think that is a qualification for the job,” says Kim, missing Min’s sarcasm. I look over at the casket, keeping my eyes fixed on the large banner depicting the Leader’s face that’s hanging above the dead man’s body.
“So you knew him when he was younger?” I ask. “What kind of man was he?”
“He was ambitious, but somewhat dim.”
“Was he a good man or bad man?” I ask.
“We are at his state-sponsored funeral. The banner of the Leader hangs above him. Officially, he was a good man,” says Kim.
Another piercing wail from the widow.
“Is that wailing because she’ll actually miss having a 300 lb. manatee trying to mount her or because she now gets evicted from general’s housing? Sorry if I’ve just caused you all to picture a preying mantis mounting a pile of playdough” Kim muses.
“I think she’ll be okay financially, if he did his duty and squirreled away some money. He was a member of the Showshin Group so he should have had a lot,” I say.
“What’s the Showshin Group?” Min asks.
“You’ve heard of Showshin,” Kim interjects. “The most accomplished protégé of the Grandfather’s favorite painter, Chouen. Years ago a group of high-ranking government officers and generals got together and created Showshin,”
“What do you mean? Showshin is a real person. I’ve seen his paintings,” Min replies.
“You’ve seen paintings that are called Showshin paintings. You haven’t seen Showshin’s actual paintings because Showshin wasn’t a real person.”
Min stares at Kim.
“He was created,” Kim continues. “This cadre wanted some extra cash. Chouen’s paintings were so expensive and profitable that they decided to just make up a guy, slap a name on him and say he was Chouen’s protégé to give him the necessary pedigree. Of course, they claimed he had been killed fighting counter-revolutionaries in the great steppe. That accomplished two goals. First, dead artists always fetch more. Second, they wouldn’t have to worry about getting some actor to pretend he was the artist.”
“I don’t believe you,” Min says matter of factly. He’s been egged on by Kim one too many times.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true — well, not officially of course.”
“It is true, Min,” I chime in. “Kim’s not just being an asshole, like usual. These guys created their own market and made thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars. All it took was for this group of guys to start pretending to clamor for these supposed masterpieces and the suckers joined in.”
“But what about the paintings of Showshin?” asks Min.
“They had some guy make some paintings. Tell me, do you like Showshin’s paintings?” Kim asks
“He’s my favorite painter if I had to name one from our country.” Min says.
“What about Showshin’s paintings is so great?” Kim continue.
“I like his style. He’s famous. He has a….”
“There it is!” Kim shouts. Others glare at him and he quickly lowers his voice to a whisper. “There it is. That word — famous. You like him because he’s famous. If he was some guy who painted out of his alleyway and you stopped by one day, you wouldn’t think those paintings were fantastic. You’d think they were mediocre. But people tell you the paintings are great, so you think they are great. And therefore, you pay a lot of money for them — well, you do if you are a member of the Leader’s family or some corrupt businessman and not some underpaid sergeant in the military.”
Kim continues. “It’s basically printing your own money if you are a member of the Showshin group. You have some anonymous guy paint something for you and you put it up at auction. If some previously undiscovered Showshin just happens to show up on the market one day, they have a ‘group’ of experts declare it as authentic but only if the owner is a member of the Showshin group. Anyone else and they declare it a fake.”
“How the hell do you know this?” Kim asks.
“My well-connected uncle once bought a Showshin. It cost him a fortune.”
“Did the group tell him the secret after he bought it?” Min asks.
“No, he learned the secret the hard way,” Kim says, fussing with his shirt collar. “He had a falling out with some higher-ups. Turns out one of them was a member of the Showshin group.” Kim says.
“How did he find that out?”
“The day after the fight, his painting was declared a fake.”
I chuckle, gazing up at the store window advertising a sale on notebooks. Walking inside, I am greeted by a young female storekeeper who bows deferentially at the patron dressed in full military uniform. I peer down and see a three-foot tall, life-size Eschuan, an elfen-like rabbit creature that’s been manufactured to serve as the symbol and inspiration of the People’s Struggle for children. It grins back at me, an axe in one hand and a hoe in another. An older man, probably her father or grandfather, makes his way from the back of the store and gives me a polite smile. I feel bad intruding on people like this. The uniform causes trepidation, though everyone tries their best not to display it, and I feel guilty. I feel guilty because they kiss your ass and they especially kiss my ass because I’m nicer to them than most high-ranking officers. This always catches them off-guard. Soon the fear melts off their faces and the confusion they experience, mixed with the unexpected relief, molds into an almost ecstatic gratitude reflected in their eyes. But I don’t know if I act the way I do to them because that’s who I am or because I selfishly want to see that gratitude. I am either a good person or a truly awful person. And if I do not know which I am, I am certainly the latter, I think, remembering what Sun had said.
“Hello, Most Honored Fighter,” the old man says, using the mandated term of endearment for high-ranking military officers. “May I help you find something?”
“Hello, my esteemed compatriot and worker. I see you have been advertising for paper supplies.” Here, I could easily say I want a notebook, but I wait, extending the conversation.
“Yes, Most Honored Fighter, we are. Do you require some paper supplies?”
“Yes, I may. Is business good?” I look around, noticing the entire aisle devoted to Leader merchandise: scented candles imprinted with the face of the Leader, Leader action figures, Leader books and good luck charms, Leader-recommended medicines and topical ointments.
“It is. Each day we are constantly striving to improve the People’s betterment, true to the Leader’s behest.” The last line is delivered in a textbook manner.
“You do not need to speak that way with me, friend.”
He looks confused at me. “Sorry, Most Honored Fighter. I will do better.”
“No, you don’t understand. No need for robotics. I am a boy from farm country. I know normal speak, esteemed compatriot and worker.”
“Normal?” The man looks at me, a bit off put. I start to get annoyed. He’s either sincere in his beliefs or too cowardly to let down his guard. I don’t know which is worse.
“Forget it. Please lead me to your paper supplies. I need a notebook.”
“They are in this aisle. Do you require any special kind?”
“Something small enough to fit in my back pocket,” I reply.
“Of course. Take a look at these,” he says, handing me several leather bound notepads. As I look over the selection, I feel his eyes on my face. I look up from the stack and see him avert his gaze.
“Are you on duty today, Most Honored Fighter?” he asks, almost in a hushed tone. I look at him and sense that he’s smelled the whiskey on my breath.
“Why do you need to know that, citizen?” I ask, switching to a standard form of address for the commoners.
“You have such an important job. I figure there’d be no way you’d have time to honor our little store with your patronage on a day you must devote your energy to protecting the Leader’s land.” A subtle chide at me for being drunk on the job. This is, according to true believers, not patriotic behavior and we must always — always — evince patriotic behavior. It rankles me that he would risk upsetting a high-ranking official for the sake of such blind, stupid devotion. My presence, right here and now on this man’s floor, captivating his entire view, his entire mental processes; these illustrious medals, shining and glimmering on my chest before his eyes; my odor, the smell of liquor and well shined shoes and hair gel and cigarettes welling up in his nostrils; my side arm, loaded and black, uncaring and ready to kill; all my supposed raw power: they have all been trumped by some ethereal propaganda, some false truth that’s never seen but always there.
“My energy is never not devoted to protecting the Leader’s land, even on my off days,” I say sternly.
“Of course,” he says, staring blankly at my chest. I see the young woman in the back begin sweeping the floor.
“Tell me, citizen, have you served in our Eternal Struggle,” I say, referring to combat.
“During the Epic Conflict, I was racked with tuberculosis, unfortunately. I did everything I could, helping to fashion clothes and armaments in my bed.”
The man reminds me of my grandfather and I long to hug him.
“So you have no risked your life for our Most Glorious People?” I say, disdainfully.
“Not as you have,” he says. I notice the young woman has been sweeping the same spot behind the counter for ages.
The old man looks up at me meekly and I want to cry. I peer at his shoes, torn and soiled. His sweatshirt has the stains of a man who has worked long hours for very little. His pants sag from his waist. An old belt musters its might to keep them up, cinched tighter than it was ever intended.
“You seem like you come from the countryside.”
“Yes, I do. Five miles from Ancestral Mountain.”
“Very auspicious. How’d you make your way into the city?”
“My wife died and I thought I could help in the struggle more if I was here.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure she was a good person. How did she die?”
“Old age.” By this, he means either starvation or disease.
“Well, I am sorry. Is that your daughter?” I smile and give a nod. The young woman keeps her eyes on the floor.
“No, my granddaughter.”
“What did you raise in the country?”
“Goats and chickens mostly, and then I was recruited to work as a school teacher.”
“You must have been very smart, and very busy. Most of the rural school teachers also worked for the Rural People’s Re-education Program.”
“I would have been happy to serve the Leader wherever, but the fatherland saw fit that I just serve as school teacher.”
“I’m sure that’s true.” I know it is not. “My father worked for the Rural People’s Re-education Program,” I tell him.
The old man begins straightening boxes and cans, lining them up so they just touch the edge of the shelf in front of him.
“He would’ve been your age, I suspect,” I continue. “He said it was hard work. He said in those days there was lots of necessary re-education. There were many rats skittering in and out of the farm fields back then. Rats from across the border. Many traps had to be set. It was very hard.”
“I’m sure you are very honored by his service for such a just cause, but perhaps we should not speak about his noble efforts. It is better not to throw a rock at the tail of a passing tiger. That is what the Just and Kind Grandfather once said.”
“But hasn’t the Leader said, ‘When sailing down the River of Glory, keep one eye looking ahead and one eye looking behind. For someday the journey might take us back upstream, and it will helpful to remember the location of the rocks we first passed.”
“You may be right, Most Honorable Fighter.”
“Who are we to believe then — the Leader or the Grandfather?”
“We believe them both.”
“But, if they are irreconcilable?”
“These are not questions to be asked,” he muffles.
“How many surviving children do you have, my friend?”
“I do not have any. I once had three.”
“I am sorry to hear that. The three children — were their deaths prescribed or was it the natural order?”
“Two had their deaths prescribed. One died by natural means.”
“I am very sorry for your loss.”
“Death is natural, but thank you,” he says.
“But prescribed death is most unnatural.”
“Death prescribed by the Leader is more natural than any kind of death.”
“Except death by actual nature, I suppose?” I ask, pulling out a cigarette and twirling it unlit in my fingers.
“No, even more natural than that,” the old man responds.
“And how do you figure?”
“The Leader is Father of All. If he prescribes it, it is done by nature.”
“And he is good — isn’t he?”
“Without any doubt he is.”
“I’m sorry for all the questions,” I say. “I have no doubt this is a difficult topic for you, though you certainly don’t show it. Tell me, friend, does it ever bother you that some of us are born naturally good and some are born naturally bad?”
“No, I suppose that is the way of things.”
“But, there’s consequences for being bad isn’t there? The Leader says that before we are born the spirits of the afterlife have already foreseen our entire lives. And when they are molding us, they know how deep or shallow our every breath will be, how far we will walk with our first steps, how many times our heart will beat during our first kiss. They know if we will be good or bad. They know who will ascend into the Ultimate Glory, and they know who will descend into the depths of the great suffering for eternity.”
“The spirits of the afterlife are all knowing and good. Of course they know all this.”
“Ah, you say they are good, and that’s what we are taught, isn’t it?” I ask, raising my voice. “If they are so good, so benevolent, and if they are all knowing — able to predict the future — why then do they make bad people?”
The man stares at me.
“It’s cruel, can’t you see? In their very hands, they possess clay and they shape it and mold it and this entire time, while their hands are still moist and sticky with the residue of our eventual existence, they know if what they are molding is good or bad. If they sense it will be a bad person, they know it is doomed to suffer an eternity of hellfire. Then, I ask, why make such a pitiful creature, knowing full well its awful fate? Why, if they are so good, do they make something only to have it suffer for the rest of the ages? Is that not the cruelest thing that can be meted on a being?”
“I wish I knew the answer. I am just a simple shop keep.”
“I hardly doubt that is true. Your granddaughter — where will she be going to university?”
“The Great Father’s University of Science,” he says, quickly looking up at me. He realizes he’s made a mistake.
“Oh, the University of Science. Very prestigious. I’m very happy for you,” I say looking over the shoulder of the old man at the young girl. She gives a faint smile and keeps sweeping.
“It is very difficult to get into the University of Science. One needs to be close to the Leader’s heart, as they say. I am happy the Leader, in his righteousness and wisdom, has decided to open such doors to us, the rural peasantry. Of course, he has always been very generous to those who do such nasty work on the People’s behalf.” The old man looks at me at first uncomfortably, but then his expression changes and for the first time I see it in his eyes, that cold, dark, calculating expression. It is the look he must have given hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the fields. The subtle winds pushing the tops of the wheat where he stands resolutely. Women cowering and screaming for mercy before him, clutching their babies while houses burn in the distance. His pants are tattered and he is holding an AK-47 and he points it at the object pleading at his feet.
“Was it all worth it?” I ask.
“Did they all deserve to die? Even the children?”
“Truthfully, yes.” He stares at me.
“Let us have tea in the backroom,” he says after a moment’s pause, his voice quivering for the first time.
“Yes, lead me to your backroom. I need to show you something,” I say.
I rest my hand on his shoulder and hear a scream.
“Good lord, will she ever stop with the wailing?” Kim asks, as I keep my hand resting on him. The casket is being lowered into the ground as dozens stand grazing about.
“Maybe she will calm down once he’s out of sight,” Min whispers, replying to Kim.
“Let us hope so. The People’s Struggle was never meant to be easy, the Leader tells us, but there’s only so much one man can endure.”
“You’re just pissy that we’re out of scotch,” I tell him.
The National Anthem starts to play and we bow our heads. I pass the time by looking at the shoes surrounding me. Most are military, black and well-polished. Some of the women wear dress shoes and heels. A few of the men in civilian suits — the political class — get away with brown leather. As the anthem reaches climax a pair of high heels steps right in front me, toes pointing toward me. I look up and see Mari.
“I mean this in the most sincere way. You have always been good at fucking,” I tell her.
“Thank you,” she says, unstradling me and making her way towards the bathroom. I stare at her as she walks, her gymnast body fluttering around the bed, looking almost like a ghostly apparition in the darkened room.