The Country/The Country

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The Sacred Commission

The Sacred Commission counts the votes. In their own time, their own way. They release what totals the members verify, when they are ready and not before. The commissioners are above party. They have no partisan or electoral affiliations. Little is known about their personal histories. Their names seldom appear in the public media or print, though brief generic biographies of new members are released at the time of their appointment. These public statements are intended to show that the commission does in fact represent, and continues to represent, all the districts of the country in some plainly equitable way. Platow is represented, of course, with a single member, though some of the larger districts have two members. But all commissioners are responsible as a body for verifying the results of Voting Day in each of the country’s districts. When they are satisfied that all the votes have been fairly counted, they make public the results in whatever words, or numbers they choose.

Then they combine these results with the totals of all the previous Voting Days and then declare which of the candidates, if any, should be regarded as the Leading Candidate.

Since Pig has been declared Leading Candidate after each of the six previous Voting Days in the current cycle, it was highly unlikely, and perhaps practically impossible, that any other candidate but Pig would be given this title by the Commission.

But whatever the commissioners say goes. Their word is law. They are accountable to no other body. They choose their own membership, appointing new members as old ones retire, or die, or (rarely) are compelled to resign. They meet in the nation’s capital but leave no records aside from their public statements.

Their duty is to make sure that everyone knows who is winning. And who, therefore, is likely to have won in the District of Platow. But nobody knows when the contest is over, or will be, until the Commission says that it is. They are the Deficula Orators of their time.

Surely, despite the absence of real news on the Evening Nooz, Keel told himself, the results of Monday’s election in Monro and the conclusion of the Voting Days in all of Platow, ought to be released any moment now. Typically, they were released on the day following the vote.

Will the Commission also declare that the Leading Candidate has in fact been chosen to be the country’s new leader, the Chief Xec? It seemed likely to Keel. What else has the country been waiting to hear? Is the commission carefully weighing this grave decision?

What would happen if the commission does make the Final Declaration?

What is he supposed to do about that?

He took Survy for a long, slow, pensive walk.

The dog looked up questioningly at his repeated pauses.

Ignoring merchants’ stares, he took her with him to make small purchases in small markets, avoiding the larger public squares. Has his encounter with Pig, he asked himself, proved successful -- in some small way, the mechanics of which he does not understand? When will he find out? How? Will he ever?

But in truth Keel knows what he is doing. He is waiting.

The summons came not from the Kevvens, as he expected, but from others.

Someone hammered at his door. Keel put his book down (he has been reading a favorite history of Ageless Kellas), a book he has read four times before, and found two large men standing at his doorstep. This of course was concerning. Was he being invited to a shaming? His own?

“The boss wants you,” one of them said.

The one who spoke was a man of average height with a square-shaped head and a glimmer in his eye that suggested that while he knew he was playing a part in something dreadfully upsetting, he nevertheless enjoyed it. It was an opportunity to stand out, to show what he could do. How often in life did such chances come along?

“When?”

“Now.” The man looked at him with that almost smile in his ash-gray eyes. “When else?”

Fortunately, Keel thought, I’m at leisure.

“Am I going to be gone long?” he asked. Like, possibly, forever?

No one apparently had ever asked the gray-eyed smirker this question. “Whuddaya mean?”

He sighed, mentally. “I have to feed the dog. It’ll just take a minute.”

“We’ll wait inside,” his visitor announced.

Keel held the door open. Were they afraid I’m going to try to sneak out the back door? Kill myself in the bath?

Two heavy fellows followed him into the living room, where he asked them to wait while he went to the kitchen to fork out some more damp slaughterhouse-leavings into Survy’s bowl.

He wished to gather up the notes he had made from the table where he left them and hide them somewhere, perhaps even on his person, but he did not know whether this was possible with two followers of Pig standing ten feet away in the next room. He had gathered these notes from a few old nooz-sheets and periodicals as if somehow to prepare himself for his initial encounter with Pegasso, realized they were useless, but foolishly left them lying about. Of course the Pigglies knew where he lived! ‘Classicist’! he thought again. ‘Philosopher’! Fool. Their dossier on him was no doubt superior to his on their Leading Candidate.

Keel didn’t study Pig; but he dreamed him. Karol Pegasso, the dream told him, was a mysterious presence behind the scenes. ‘Businessman’ -- what an elastic and wholly useless term that was! Everyone had ‘business’ to take care of. Did the word refer to someone whose only occupation was taking care of it? The word was the most elastic euphemism in the language. Organized crime bosses masqueraded as ‘businessman.’ Gamblers. Hangers-on. Subordinates hovering about the presence of the rich and powerful as if hoping some scrap of fabulous wealth would accidentally slurp their way. Your learned the name of some ‘businessman’ in the finance pages of the nooz-sheet until the story made the front page, but by that time the thing, the maneuver, whatever subject had made the news, was already done. The fix was in. The merger made; or, in a last minute double-cross, consummated with a competitor. The celebrations then; Keel saw them. Green champagne, the color of money, the color of luck, pouring from the fountains. Guests stripping off formal wear and diving in... Statues, painted gold, coming alive in the late hours when you least expected it. When you were drunk or drugged or exhausted, and had no resistance to the spectacle. As in some old legend, stories from an ancient past, bodies draped in paint and colored spangles enacted the marvel-tales of a distant time in the history of the Commonhope, of Urth, of the origin of the peopled world. Tales that resonated with some part of the human psyche too deep, too old, to be understood purely in words...

The sizable creatures in the other room, the one that spoke and the one that didn’t, were growing restless. The one that spoke, the gray-eyed sadist, sighed loudly.

“Maggot here,” he called, apparently referring to his companion, “is getting antsy. What’s the hang-up?”

Keel picked up a single page and crumpled it into a pocket. Then returned to the other room and signaled that he was ready to go with them.

They drove, of course; in a black oversized wagon. Nobody walked anywhere; nobody but him. Survy stared in disappointment from the top of the couch.

They drove this time somewhere else.

Not down Pike Street to the Dormands’ house, whose familiarity despite the antagonism of the tormented canines made the place feel like a second home for Keel’s tortured sensibility now that they were taking him to some unknown elsewhere. They headed toward the city center, to one of the largeish anonymous motor lodgings, he suspected, then realized, with a new lurch of dread, that they were aiming straight for the Capitol Zone. City ‘Hell,’ as he now thought of it. Regardless of whatever was about to happen to him, his senses narrowed to the prospect of encountering once more the once-living, no longer breathing presence of The Hanged Man. The corpse’s face blackened by now, body stiff and skeletal, still twisting perhaps in a puff of wind.

The wagon, with ‘Maggot’ at the wheel, slowed at the curbstone surrounding the broad plaza. Keel’s anxious glance proved free of disturbing images. (Did they have the decency to take him down? To turn ‘the remains’ over to the family. Say ‘hey, guys, we hung your old man’...?) Should he permit himself to feel relief? But when he scanned the surroundings, quiet, a few pedestrians crossing the apron -- that eerie calm after the storm -- his eye caught some strange dark bodiless slashes suspended among the bare trees and conifers in the City Green, where the Pigglies had planted their tents on arrival night.

He mistrusted his senses. His imagination was seeing things. Making the sense data fit the preconceived notion. In this case, his fear.

The vehicle did not stop at the curbstone. Maggot slowed, then gunned the accelerator when the front tires touched the curb, lifting the wagon with a double-thump onto the plaza and rolling slowly up to the stone entryway.

Security? he wondered. Or were Pig’s invitees protected from public spectacle as much as possible. The two men accompanied Keel into the building and up the rotunda stairway to the second floor. The mayor’s office, he guessed. He had been there once or twice, but he was not familiar with the chambers of the inner sanctum. Never had an appointment, or casual sitdown, with the city’s force de majeur (to use the ancient term).

The building was quiet. Hollow. An empty hall waiting for the phone to ring. But no phones were ringing. No clatter of footsteps. A distant sloshing sound somewhere like the flushing of a toilet. City hall: a place where folks come to eliminate.

As promised, the entire public work force had been sent home again; the brass having decided that the better part of valor consisted in not showing up.

The footfalls of his own little party were the building’s only sounds.

They passed what Keel thought was the mayor’s office and paused instead before a doorway that proved to be the gateway into a large, nearly empty hall.

A broad figure, overbuilt from the shoulders down, bulked before the window overlooking the plaza, with its view of new arrivals. Then turned about to face the figures in the doorway and in an act of singular discovery proved to be Pig.

Well, that had been their destination. But for the second time when faced by the man Keel was shaken by what he saw. The wide-shouldered, bovine-hipped bulk of the man, especially standing, fully elevated and almost unnaturally expanded, as if he were about to spread his arms and ascend on invisible wings to the chamber’s generous height to conduct the interview from the ceiling. In relation to which his substantial cranium now seemed merely in due proportion: childishly pink in coloration, rounded jaw, sneery snout, elfishly tipped and quivering ears (as if to distract from the two palpable nubs of boney flesh just above them), broad nose, and, finally, where Keel tried not to look but was inevitably drawn at last to stare, transfixed, the pig-iron of his black-holed eyes.

Pig head, he thought.

Deep wells in the skull, like those black holes (the ancients spoke of) into which all matter, and energy, is finally consumed.

“Well, Keel.”

Slight echo, then silence.

“Today we will be alone.”

He stared. Keel waited.

“And we will see... what we will see.”

Unable to keep silent without appearing rude, Keel said. “I am, naturally, curious about why you sent for me... I am not -- to be candid -- a supporter.”

Pig grunted a laugh. “We know who our supporters are.”

And who your enemies are?

“And I’m curious too. About why you showed up at the home of one of my major supporters in this city. Uninvited, I might add.”

But not unexpected.

Praying for plausibility Keel told his cover story. By the time he came to the word “parking,” Pig waved an arm and interrupted.

“All right,” he said. “We will come back to that.”

Keel shut up, momentarily relieved.

“I think we should sit down,” the big man pronounced and gestured to a couple of chairs at a side table.

They sat near the window. Pig with his back to the window and the world outside, examining his guest.

Had this meeting been anticipated by Mrs. Nathan? He had received no warning. He told himself to breathe and imitate some version of normal.

“So,” the candidate said, legs splayed from the straight-back chair as if to grab more of the floor than the furniture-makers had foreseen, “you must have studied the ‘Goat-Songs.’ Tell me something about them.”

“They’re about kings.” Simple truth.

“What happens to them?”

“They fall.”

“All of them? Why?”

“Most of them. Occasionally one is taken up to the heavens to join the gods.”

“Heaven?” Pig snorted. “Who needs heaven? Plenty to do right here.” He gestured, without turning to look, at the world behind him. Then turned his hard gaze back on Keel.

“Why do they fall?”

“Mostly because they go too far. They have great abilities. The heroes, that is the word these old stories use for these kings, are great men. Only the stories of great men are suitable subjects for the Goat-Songs. The singers were not interested in the rest of us.”

A deep chuckle from his listener.

“So far so good, Mister Professor,” Pig said in a kind of grumbling concession.

“But, as I said, the great men are victimized by their own strengths, and go too far.”

How had he put this, back in the old days, speaking to gatherings of the not so special young?

“It is as if they wish to become gods themselves... Or, perhaps, think they already are. They are powerful, but they keep extending their power. They keep reaching out to decide matters in the fates of others. If they are governing their own city well, they conclude they ought to be governing the next city as well. They build ships, form armies. The heavy weight of taxes turns their own citizens against them....

“It’s as if,” Keel paused, finding his way to the heart of things more easily than he had among the inexperienced young, “simply being what they are fails to satisfy some deeper need inside them. Some demon... That drive. The ambition. They are never satisfied.”

Pig’s broad, pink, ordinarily suspicious features relaxed and reconfigured into a glance expressive of both doubt and something like rapture.

He queried, sought examples, picked apart the case histories Keel offered. The onetime instructor wished that some of his youthful, me-centered students had been capable of such attention as the Leading Candidate now showered on his every word.

“So they are never at peace. I don’t mean they are always making war. But they are continually driven to enlarge their -- presence. Reputation? Their legend? To become more – god-like -- by taking more life into themselves... It was said that some the early heroes used to eat parts of the bodies of their principal enemies. To gain the power of the vanquished for their own.”

He considered, again. “They can never rest.”

“Tell me,” Pig demanded, his thick neck and wide shoulders pushing forward, “the best one of these stories.”

“The best? That’s hard.”

“Any one. Any one you remember.”

“I’ll tell you this one. It’s about a ruler with a great reputation, perhaps the greatest, among all the cities of Urth in his time. A king who relied on his own intelligence and judgment, his knowledge of the world, as well as the temporal power of his position. In his youth he had saved the city from a mortal enemy and was rewarded with its throne. But he grows too sure of himself, too confident of his own vision, and he fails to listen to a warning... One day a man with no eyes comes to his kingdom, and to his court. He is a seer, a prophet. He gives him advice: ‘Do not take your journey any further. Be content with what you have.’ ”

Pig frowned, intent on this tale.

“If you go any further, the seer warns, all that you have you will crumble at your feet. Your own life will be threatened, your body disfigured.”

“So what does he do?” Pig demanded when the tale slowed. “This great king?”

“He is the best of men,” Keel repeated. “Everybody knew this. Capable and strong-willed, but wise. No one could present a false front to him and hope to deceive the ruler. Yet when the blind seer comes from afar to dissuade him from undertaking a certain course of action, he fails to listen. He fails in the court of judgment. Ah ha, say the Gods. We have you now.”

Pig smirked at the mention of ‘gods.’ But then asked, “Then what happens?”

“So his unyielding impulse always to act -- his ‘campaign,’ let us call it,” Keel said, choosing the first word at hand, “went forward apace, with no slowing, no yielding, no stopping to consider... regardless of the risk the seer tried to warn him of... And it ends just where the prophet foretold it would. In disaster.”

“What sort of disaster? Did he lose a battle?”

“No. A secret is revealed.”

“A secret?” Disbelief. Contempt, even. “What secret?”

Keel considered. Actually, he was merely delaying now, to put off the inevitable.

“The secret of self-knowledge... Of learning who he really is.”

Pig looked puzzled. “Is that’s all?”

“That was quite enough in the case of the great ruler of the City of Thruste. Known to his contemporaries as the best of men.”

“This ruler. This great man. What was his name?”

“He is known to us as Edo.”

“So this Edo...” Pig paused, apparently thinking. “This great ruler... What happened to him that was so terrible?”

“He put out his eyes. After learning the truth about himself.”

Or castrated himself. Keel considered this alternative; decided the first was better.

Which version did Pig wish to hear? Or wish less to hear?

The big man looked as if he did not wish to hear anything more about the sad fate of Edo. His features turned inward: the Brooder. He did not appear to notice Keel’s inspection.

The silence persisted until Pig broke it again.

“So this is the great wisdom of the ages?”

Keel did not know if this was the sort of question that required an answer, but in the end he gave one.

“The wisdom of the ages is often seen as a warning to great men,” he said. “Or powerful ones who wish to be great… Human beings have remembered these tales for a long time, so perhaps there is a reason for doing so.”

Pig grunted. A deep, muttery acknowledgment, then a sigh that sounded like stones rolling down a woodland streambed at the spring flood. Keel thought the big man was about to say something more, dispute with him perhaps on their meaning, or even the point of recalling such stories -- such old, old stories of unsubtle people who believed in nonsense.

Gods and their messengers. Blind prophets.

“Maybe I’ll tell you a story,” Pig said.

He waited.

“Hmph!” Pig emitted a noise from his pursed lips so loud that Keel started. “Some time.”

The door to the conference room opened, and one of the large men of the posse that surrounded the candidate at his appearances stood in the doorway, waiting for instructions. The fellow did not open his mouth, and Keel noted, perhaps for the first time, that no one spoke in the boss’s presence without being spoken to first or recognized in some clear fashion bidding him to deliver his message.

“Take him to the chambers.”

The boss made no indication to suggest who the object of this command was. Seemingly none was needed.

Pig rose from the chair, and Keel stood at once as well.

“You stay with us now,” Pig remarked. Off-handedly.

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