The Country/The Country

By Bob Knox All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi

28. The Shamings

It was clear by the afternoon of the day after the spectacular arrival of the Pegasso campaign in the city of Monro, capital of the district of Platow, if it had not been evident from the very first moments of that arrival, that the local authorities no longer maintained any control over the city. Everything, every aspect of public life, was yielded up to the campaign, that invading fury, celebrity road show, armed takeover, and moveable feast all wrapped up into one. Laws were suspended, or ignored, as if they never existed.

The rule of law was that you paid for your purchase in the quotidian world of Monro. Markets ran on cash, not on some vague promise of future payment for goods acquired now. You did not pay on Tuesday for the food you purchased now.

But when the Pigglies arrived at your market, they took what they wanted. They pointed to things behind the counter, cigarettes, lottery tickets, pints of some expensive, foreign-made liquor, and told the clerk to put it in the bag.

“Just charge it to the campaign,” they said to the owner’s frightened query.

“Pig’ll take care of all of that.”

Karol Pegasso was known to be fabulously wealthy. Though no one really knew where his money came from. Where he kept it all. Everyone believed that he owned a good hunk of the country; but rumor added that he didn’t pay his bills.

Some market owners grumbled at this offer of future compensation, but a hard look from a Pigglie with a pal to back him up was enough to shut off dissent.

They knew what was happening. They’d heard, even if they hadn’t yet seen such things themselves.

The Pigglies took your vehicle if they needed it for what they called “a matter of public interest.” Sometimes the man taking your car, ordering you out of the driver’s seat, stared hard into the distance as if trying to remember something important, before pronouncing the words: “matter-uff public... whatever.”

Some public buildings or private workplaces, a couple houses even, were requisitioned as well. The campaign needed bunkroom; supply room, storage, meeting space. Men, and a few women, tattooed like the men with images of animals copulating, wearing leather and chains, slept outdoors in the campaign’s revivalist tents that first night, but now they were naturally looking for more comfort since it appeared Pig had moved in for a certain duration.

A week. Maybe two. No one knew exactly. It was up to the Sacred Commission, anyway. The final call was always up to them.

“Double up,” the fleeced homeowners were told. “Go stay with your friends. Your relations. It’s just for a little while.”

“We won’t touch a thing.”

An hour later, the family sent packing -- driving off, kids and old people with their heads down and the stunned look of refugees -- the neighbors heard the commotion.

Men dragging things, stuff, unwanted furnishings, clutter, out the back door. Throwing it into the yard.

The zone of occupation spread from the Capitol Zone, the capitol green, into the neighboring blocks of the old downtown. It was for that week, or maybe another, until the Sacred Commission got around to declaring that the country’s voters had by a consensus demonstrated time and again on Voting Days selected a new leader, a new Chief Xec -- with only one viable outcome of their deliberations. But for the moment, the commissioners appeared to be delaying. Votes were still being counted in the district of Platow. By all nooz-media accounts Pegasso was far head, but still nothing was official. No “official tally” for Voting Day in Monro had been released.

Watching the TV nooz deliver this piece of status quo, Keel remembered what he had forgotten to do.

He had forgotten to vote. He groaned and threw himself back on his chair.

He wondered how many others had suffered this strange memory lapse. Were the Voting stations oddly quiet? If so, it had not made the nooz.

Word had got around swiftly after that first full day of occupation. Women, particularly, were careful not to show their faces in public.

There was a report, a rumor, that a girl was missing. Nothing on the news. But folks in her neighborhood spread the word to other neighborhoods.

And then another.

The Local Nooz did not cover rumors. But neither did it send a camera crew, with a reporter or two, to the Capitol building or the old City Hall to see what was going on there.

Everyone thought it better to pretend that ordinary life was going on as usual. Whoever these people, the dangerous sort of Pigglies, really were, they would soon be leaving the city. If you lost your car, or were uprooted from your home, you were paying a big cost so that luckier neighbors could get by paying a smaller cost. Sometimes the luckier neighbors helped out. Who would you complain to anyway?

Some Pigglie had put a message on the City Hall Vocal-Record system. By order of the mayor, the recorded voice alleged, all city business was suspended for a week. “The Mayor and Council of Deputies welcome Leading Candidate Karol Pegasso to the city of Monro and congratulate him on his victory [so far officially unannounced] at the recent Voting Day in the City of Monro and the District of Platow. .... Please call back with your own congratulations and comments this coming Monday.”

Six more days, Keel thought, when he called City Hall himself. A lot could happen in six days.

When he dialed the police department, there was no response at all. The line was dead.

Well, he told himself, he had done it. He had been told to somehow gather Pig’s attention unto himself, and that goal had surely been accomplished. But, of course, in the event he had not had to do anything himself. It had been done to him by others: he had been singled out by Pig and, first, by host Dormand. ‘The teacher of old books?’ Pig had asked. Why would someone, Dormand presumably (he could not think of any other connection), single him out to Pig? Why had Pig been prepared to encounter him?

How, for that matter, had they known he was coming?

Marga had told them, he decided, warned them, prepared them. Of course.She was following orders too: Prepare her in-laws for the appearance of some funny old local man who wants to play with the boss. The boss likes to play with a few of the yokels, doesn’t he?

His mission could not be allowed to fail. The Kevvens could not risk leaving Keel up to his own devices. Scholar? Philosopher? He was nothing, really, not since his ‘early’ retirement from the college.

He was not important, Keel concluded -- how could he be? -- but his role was. He was a pawn.

He knew what happened to pawns.

The shamings began the first day, Voting Day in Monro, though Keel did not learn about them until later. They did not follow a predictable pattern.

The Pigglies would arrive at your door, three or four, maybe more, enough to be sure that the party in question would be acquired without any difficulties. They knew of course where you lived, where you worked -- though few people, health-keepers basically, were going to work that day, having heard the noise, and perhaps a rumor or two, from the day before.

A few did, of course, go about their business in the usual way. But, for most: why take the risk?

Your name was on a list. With facts about you. Somebody in the campaign, somebody else, had more facts and would make these public if and when appropriate. The Pigglies would tell you that Mister Pig wished to see you. Their tone and conduct made it clear that this was not a request.

You might ask the messengers why the Leading Candidate could spare the time, or had any desire, to see you. You have never had any previous dealings with him or the campaign.

You tell them you are a person of no particular importance.

They smile at this, Pig’s messengers smile, but it is not a happy smile. No one is fooled.

You ask again, more nervously,” Why does he wish to see me?”

It occurs to you that you might have signed something that expressed a poor opinion of Karol Pegasso’s qualifications for the position of Chief Xec. But surely thousands of others have signed such expressions of opinion. You protest in your thoughts, ‘Why is he picking on me?’

This is what you think, but of course you do not say these words aloud. You have your pride. Whoever these coarse, dull-witted men are, you do not wish to lose face in front of them.

“You have the wrong name, I suspect,” you tell them. “Let me see that paper.”

The paper in my hand, the leader of this posse replies, is for my eyes. Not for yours.

“Surely,” you say, “there is some mistake. I have work to do.”

“You have work to do?” the leader replies with an expression of puzzlement. “And yet here you are at home.” He glances at your dress. “In your leisure clothes, surely.”

“The university is closed today. You may not be aware of this, I suspect.”

His words imply that men such as those who have knocked at his door are not up to date on the running of universities. But these are not men to be impressed by implications.

“Of course we know it is closed. So you have no work today. No one in the city does. It is Voting Day. You are free to come with us.”

“With you?” This is a new unpleasantness. “I thought you were taking me to the Candidate.”

“Us....The Candidate. It’s the same thing.” The man shrugs. He is no longer pretending to smile.

In the end you agree to come with them, because you have no choice.

Then you are taken, either by foot or in one of the van-like vehicles the Pigglies have rounded up for their use, not to the presence of the Leading Candidate, but to some public place. A merchants’ square, such as the one in the neighborhood where Keel lived.

Then your hands are affixed behind your back and tied with binding cable to a post. Lamp post. Traffic light. Flag pole even, as the setting required.

And then you are told to confess.

If you protest this treatment, or question the authority of your captors, or ask a more specific question about the nature of the ‘confession’ sought, or demand to know what you could possibly have been guilty of that required such a brutally public humiliation, a man hits you with a stick.

If you open your mouth once more, he hits you again.

You could be hit in various places. On the face was perhaps the worst place to be hit, because the stick -- a pointer, a cane; whatever was handy -- would inevitably leave a mark. And there you were, a walking testimony to your own humiliation.

You would shut up, so the hitting would stop.

Then everyone simply stands around.

A crowd has gathered.

Rather the Pigglies have gathered one, poking their way into neighboring markets and tiny shops and even residences and demanding that those inside step outdoors for a moment to bear witness to an important public ‘confession.’ Their sticks and openly carried firearms are sufficient persuasion to induce inhabitants and customers to assemble awkwardly at some distance from the spectacle, as far as the Pigglies permit them, of the man tied to the post.

Then people, a random collection of the citizenry of the City of Monro, stand in their winter dress, chilly and frightened, their eyes evading those of any other human being, a few children gathered close by a parent or minder, to witness the spectacle.

“We’re waiting,” the leader says.

“For what?” you demand, at length. Your hands hurting from the ties. Your brow beginning to drip blood from the cut on your forehead.

“For your confession.”

After a silence, you blurt, “What do you want me to say?”

“That’s up to you. As long as it’s the truth.”

“What truth?”

You hold out as long as you can, until it’s clear to you that even the most defiant members of the audience gathered by the Pigglies for your public shaming are silently begging you to say something so they can go back home to whatever they were doing or do anything else other than stand around on a street corner watching a man with a bloody forehead receive his shaming. So that they can do anything, think anything, see and hear anything that helps wash away the mental impressions of what they have been forced to witness. Even if some part of their own conscience admits they are glad this torture is not happening to them, but to you.

When you realize, as your captors know you must, that only you can put an end to this torment, you begin to shout.

“What do you want me to confess to? What should I say?”

The Pigglies smile a little; they recognize this stage, but do not reply.

Eventually, when you have shouted this request a few more times, the leader replies, “We cannot tell you. You must tell us.”

And so you fall to saying whatever you can think of.

You tell them about the letter passed among the faculty of the university criticizing the Pegasso campaign for the absence of content in its rhetoric, the vacuity of its proposals. Things must change, the campaign tells us, over and over again -- so the letter read -- but the candidate never tells us how they will change. Change to what?

“I didn’t even read it,” you confess now, unable to clear the sweat and the snot from your face because your hands are bound. “I barely glanced it.... I only signed it because everybody else was.”

One of the Pigglies sniggered. The leader looked at you but remained silent.

The letter was the easy one, though.

“I made fun of you... All of you.”

Was this what they wanted to hear?

“I poked fun at the supporters of the candidate Karol Pegasso, that is to say,” putting this testimony as formally as you can, as if politeness could make up for the insult.

“And made slighting remarks about people who voted for Pig.”

It was not enough.

“I made fun of people who, I assumed, had less education than I did. I sneered at them. I sat with my colleagues in my office and made jokes about them. I called them oafs, stupid, dumbcats, clumsy diggers.” They waited. “I called them ignorant fools. Idiots. Degenerates.”

But, of course, you were only making things worse. Where was the confession?

They want to hear about you.

“This was wrong of me. I apologize. It was thoughtless and cruel and uncaring. All citizens have the right to express their own opinions, to support whatever candidate they choose. To climb aboard the haywagon,” you add, using the old term.

They wait for you to go on.

“I’m a leet. I’m one of them. The leets!”

“I was wrong! Everybody is equal. I’m not better than anyone else. My opinions are no better. It is wrong to look down on others... because I disagree, I think differently, I think I’m smarter, I think I’m better than they are…”

You go on. Saying it any way you can think of.

Occasionally someone smiles, the kind of smile that is really a sneer. Or grunts softly, the low grunt you sometimes hear yourself making in the back of your own throat. Or sniggers, or sighs, as if with impatience.

You go on for what feels like hours. Until your throat is raw. The blood on your brow has clotted, though you can still feel where the drops ran onto you cheek. Part of your body is trembling, shaking with cold because you are wearing your jacket but not your good wool layer-coat. And with the fear, the intensity of which you have not experienced before in your life, except perhaps for that time distant years ago in childhood when you were thrown to the ground in some game by a boy older and much bigger, and pummeled once or twice, just enough that you feared it wouldn’t stop. You remember that fear. That racing, shuddering, acceleration of thought and sensation, that sudden onset of desperation.

This is worse. Much.

When your tongue is too thick to continue speaking, and your head begins to loll, the Pigglies call for the witnesses to step forward and administer punishment. Despite their reluctance, individuals are escorted forward by the Pigglies. The stick is placed in their hand.

They are directed to hit the ‘sinner’ in the legs.

They comply.

The blond woman in the long coat crying her own tears as she swipes at the side of your left calf.

“Harder!” she is commanded. “Hit him like you mean it.”

They yell at her and urge her and catcall and laugh -- the same as they do to those who follow her because the eyes of the Pigglies have singled them out -- and soon your lower leg is feeling the bite of the stick. Once twice three times. The pace accelerates.

You are crying aloud. Your own voice shocks and surprises you.

Others must have their turn as well. They are compelled to.

Like the blond woman, they cry too. Or snivel. Or shout.

“I can’t do this!” an older man, carrying a hand-case as if interrupted on the way to some appointment, cries. “Hit me if you want to. Do it to me.”

They shove the old man away and give the stick to his neighbor, a shy adolescent boy, who does what they tell him to when the wide shoulders of the Pigglies surround him. Almost everyone does.

When you wake, you find yourself slumped to the ground, leaning still against the post, but your bonds have been cut. Your body is stiff and stinging, and your legs hurt so badly you can barely stand. It takes you a long while to make your way home.

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