The Country/The Country

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27. 'It's an honor'

“Mister Pegasso? If I may.”

Pig. Oh my god, Keel thought. It’s him.

It could be no other: the imposing presence looming before host Dormand and his reluctant self.

Nobody ever really saw Pig on the screen. Not up close. They saw parts of him.

The declamatory gesture. A silhouette. A profile. Half of a face. That oddly hovering, cathedral-like forest of something-like-hair.

He saw why now. He saw it at once. What the world could not see; could not be permitted to see.

Those little flesh-and-bone protrusions. Slight, very slight, yet visible.

Those animal bumps; relics of our mammalian past. Our own monstrous emergence from the thoughtless, speechless world of birth and mating and death, the world of blood and mud, blossom and decline. Our animal past. Little boney mounds on the side of the scalp, between the tip of the ear and the pate of the skull. The little disturbances of form lifting the hair (or mass of hair-like substance). Those horns.

‘Horns.’

What else could you call them? The Pig had horns.

The Pig was a monster, Keel told himself. Into each generation (the voice said inside him) a monster is born. Where has he heard this story? Half bull-half boy. A minotaur-monster.

He understood why the cameras could not be permitted to get too close to the candidate Karl Pegasso.

“We’re all behind you,” someone was saying.

A man. No surprise.

“People are pumped, Mr. Pegasso. Incredibly excited! Expectations are huge!”

“That’s right!” affirmed another man, younger, standing just beside Keel. His voice raw and earnest. “You’ll win big, Mr. Pegasso. Really big.”

The fellow quivered with emotion. He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, as if to pin himself to the earth, hold his ground against any effort by the two newcomers -- Keel and the lurching presence of host Dormand -- to sideline him. To shade his moment in the sun.

“Mr. Pegasso,” Dormand said again. “Allow me --”

The candidate’s attention turned, a lifted hand silencing the round of praise, promise, and prognostications buzzing around his head, though Pig’s own crown rose tall enough to overtop all the others.

A tall, and horny, man, Keel thought.

He felt an exhalation, some newly anxious turn in the atmosphere. Heard the engine-cough of nerves emitted by the hulk of flesh beside him. His host was perspiring. The sign of humanity moved him, briefly.

Dormand cleared his throat. “Allow me --”

“Huhm-mm.”

Pig verbalized. Perhaps merely grunted. Silence followed.

The enthused younger man with his hands in his pockets removed them and balled them by his sides. The exclaimers froze; blinking and looking away.

“I think,” a voice said: Pig’s!, “it’s time for some talking.”

No one moved.

“Yes?”

Two men joined the circle of bodies around Pig, plastered smiles on their working faces as they casually shoed the others way: the gawkers, the well-wishers, the incidental spectators, as if cutting does from the herd.

Two armchairs were slid forward to form an acute but comfortable angle to a large, deeply cushioned couch where Pig sat in its center, a handler on either side. Those required to stay sat in cushioned chairs, or the straight-backed ones behind them, or at the wings of the couch. A few large men stood, watching. The eager young would-be acolyte disappeared. Others not required slipped wordlessly to the back of the room and picked up desultory conversations.

Someone slid a straight-backed chair behind Keel. Muttered, “Sit down, pal.”

You sat in the presence of the seated Pig.

Keel obeyed and discovered the Leading Candidate’s gaze upon him. ‘Maneuvered’: the word entered his thoughts. Also, ‘hot seat.’

“So you’re Keel, right?” The booming voice of the network-addled rallies scaled itself to basement-bunker dimension. “The phil-os-o-pher.”

He wanted to deny it; shake his head. He shrugged instead.

Besides, this was his job. His part to play: make him look at you. That appeared to be happening without much effort on his part.

“So. What do you think of Mac-Veely?”

Pegasso’s voice beckoned with a sort of punishing charm. Not the chanting, stump-thumper’s voice of the choreographed rallies, those thinly veiled war-games.

Keel forced himself to look at the candidate. His features not handsome, but strong. His Adam’s apple prominent. His chin narrowly cleft; why, Keel concluded, he was photographed always from a profile dominated by the strong nose. In person he appeared larger, wider, than even the big-shouldered protectors who lurked behind Keel with their hands at their sides.

“Well?” A voice like a blade.

“Excuse me.” Keel searched for present-mindedness. “You asked about Mac-Veely?”

“You’re this Keel we’ve been hearing about, right? This man who knows all the old books.”

Hearing of? How?

“Yes.” What more could he say? “I’m Keel.”

“And I am Pegasso. So let’s go, Keel. Let me hear from you.”

He was not prepared for interrogation. He had prepared himself to offer, like everyone else, a pro-forma congratulation on the Pig’s triumphs in the recent Voting Days. Maybe, if more was somehow needed, some silliness about the weather. ‘Even the skies cleared up, Sir! Must have known you were coming!’ Don’t the great ones, the celebrities, enjoy being flattered?

“You noticed I do not call you ‘Mister’ Keel?”

The volume was creeping back into the big man’s voice. No tolerance for silence.

“You don’t have to call me ‘Mister’ Pegasso either. A single name is sufficient for men of distinction.”

Yet the voice remained modulated, songful almost. Still authoritative, penetrating. The voice of home, country, native land, body-loving child of earth.

You wanted to detach the music from the man and hug it.

But why the compliment of this notice? Who would have told Pig anything about him?

“It’s an honor --” he began, tentatively.

“I need no honor.” Definitive shake of the head.

Pegasso’s eyes, some rich animal color, looked into his face. He felt afraid to think under their scrutiny.

Get him to pay attention to you. Wasn’t this ‘attention’?

“Mac-Veely?” he said. “You asked about Mac-Veely?”

“What you think about his ideas?” Expansive hand gesture, wiping the slate. “Gut reaction.”

Keel did not do gut reactions. Now his gut felt terror.

“A certain kind of wisdom,” he heard himself say, “in the Book of Mac-Veely. His ideal archon, or commander, is one man ruling over many. He must prepare to face rivals, factions, plots. If not actually formed plots, then certainly ready plotters. He needs the favor of his people behind him to survive. If too many people favor the plotters, eventually they will succeed in his removal. At the very least, they will curtail his rule, crimp his power. He will be afraid to move about, to make a mistake. Always watching his step... The major thesis, at least to my understanding of Mac-Veely, boils down to the leader’s need to keep the favor of the people.”

“Ah. Yes...” The voice sounded content. “The favor of the people.”

Pig looked about. No one in the first circle sustained his glance. Some nodded and looked away. Pig looked off the competition, drowned other voices. His glance challenged. No one, at least here, accepted the invitation -- or challenge -- to speak.

His glance returned to Keel. His expression one of satisfaction.

“Very good, Keel.” He settled slightly, more comfortably, in his cushioned seat.

“But all this is just what I believe.” Waited, but spoke again when Keel failed to fill the pause. “The question before us, then, is how does he do this, our ideal ruler?”

He waited. “You say nothing, Keel.”

“It is a classic question,” Keel answered at last. “Usually it’s posed this way: Should the ruler strive to be feared? Or loved? Which is better?”

“Which is better?” Right back at you.

Keel felt the challenge. But faltered.

Pigs surveyed the company. Then laughed, in a knowing to tone. “Fear? Or love? Ideally, of course, he wants both. But the people must fear him, or they won’t obey.”

He looked to Keel, who did not declare himself.

“But why shouldn’t they love him? Tell me that, Keel, answer me.”

Some staring.

“I’m being serious. I do everything for them already. I will do even more once I am archon. Ruler. I will make their lives good, and their country free and powerful. No one will be unhappy. No one!”

He looked about again. The Pig could laugh; he laughed with the best of them. But he was not laughing now.

“No one,” he repeated. “So I say again, Keel, why should the people not love him?”

Quiet, he told himself. Overwhelmed by the sensation that anything he would say now would perjure himself. And somehow doing that would weaken him, blunt his usefulness.

And surely he wasn’t needed to say anything more. Surely he had already succeeded better than he could have hoped, more than they could have wished for, though he knew this success was not truly of his doing because something -- or someone -- has prepared the way for him: Mrs. Nathan and all the little Kevvens in their hidden household in the woods. He has done what they wanted: attracted Pig’s attention. Got Pig to look right at him.

Yes. A neuron flash in the brain. A hook has been planted.

He’s played his part. Now all he wants is to get out of there with his life.

But Pig’s presence returned. Once more regarded the little man before him.“Nothing more to say, Keel?”

“Well, Mr. Pegasso, if you’ll excuse me, why all this fear?”

Pig’s stare drilled into him. But then the big man smirked and looked away, and prepared the belittling phrase that would tell his cronies they should laugh now, and so they did.

“Look at this,” Pig said. “The mouse can roar.”

Even then, as Keel stood, not waiting to be dismissed officially because he already knew he was -- banished, probably forever, from the charmed circle of the intimates of Pig -- his mind

held the image that both clawed at his dreams and banged at the gate of his waking thoughts. The

real-time depiction of that last, unanswered question.

The hanged man.

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