The Country/The Country

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The Countree Inne

When the door opened again, Keel saw only the hands and forearms and a slice of the lower body of the stolid campaign-soldier, increasingly morose and now sunken so deeply into speechlessness that if the fellow called out some sort of mundane human greeting it would seem to Keel as if the bedpost or the table lamp had begun to comment on the weather. No such miracle. Instead a four-legged creature appearing by comparison no larger than the heavy shoes of her captor was shoved forward into the room with a force that appeared about to elicit a high-pitched comical growl from the slight, sliding creature whose nails sought purchase in the slick flooring, but which she turned into a yip of greeting at the sight of her human.

“You’ll still have to walk her,” the human called, even thought the door had closed with a crunch before he got the words out.

Suvry sniffed his feet, raised her head as if to scan the top of a tree, so close to the floor the under-sized spaniel dwelled in comparison to Keel’s mediocre bulk. She uttered a soft bark.

Your home, the bark seemed to say, is my home.

They spent a few quiet hours, Survy curled at the foot of the bed, confident her fast would soon end now that her human was on the scene. Keel sat with his back on the low headboard, a book his lap, his mind calculating.

The effort of thinking led to no way out.

He was a pawn, he reminded himself.

Food had not been mentioned by his jailer, who had not been forthcoming on any subject. For the dog; and for himself. Keel did not think he would care much about food in trying circumstances, especially since any meal offered him might turn out to be his last, but in fact as the light faded in the lodging window and darkness achieved the place where it would remain for many hours, his body could think of nothing else.

Yet his mind thought of other things as well. What had he done? Not now, not today, or the recent weeks, or in the looming age of terror wrought by the year-long Pig campaign -- but ever in life. What did he do with life? The years, the decades.

It was ‘tedious’ (he thought, quoting some old poet) ‘to go o’er.’

He thought, for the first time in ages, of the student in a first-year class at Clementia College, back in the early years when he was young enough so that it was nearly possible, barely, to imagine a female student seeking his attention.

It was wonder he seldom allowed his thoughts to take him back over such matters. They made him feel so dreary, so lost.

The sourpuss loomed in the doorway. Bulky, hair-thinning prematurely. Small round head on big shoulders. This time he spoke.

“Downstairs,” he said, his voice a rudimentary grumble, as if fallen into disuse. “And bring the mutt.”

The Chambers lodge had a lounge and a lobby. Holding Survy on a leash, Keel followed his wide-body guard down two flights of stairs and into a short, narrowish corridor, his view of their destination blocked almost wholly by his keeper, to a door carelessly flung wide to reveal a dining area that surprised him by its mere existence. He did not know that such a utilitarian lodge would offer ‘dining,’ so far from the traveler was Keel.

The room also boasted a name, it was written on the top of a writing board which also named a list dishes: “The Countree Inne.” Whose ‘countree’? he wondered. The country of travelers who vehicled considerable distances to arrive at marginally significant cities such as Monro and therefore required lodging. The country of travelers, he thought; of which he was no citizen. Folks who had business in the district’s Capitol Zone? With its elected law-makers? The old archetype of the ‘commercial traveler’?

Did they come to such places as this lodging beside the wide road in order to peruse the dishes named on the board? Of such choices did a life consist?

Yet his own choices were more circumscribed still. He could not properly take in the writing on the board because his insides were churning.

The people gathered here, Pig’s gang, would decide his fate.

Yet his interest was one-sided. They paid him no attention. No rowdiness here. Nothing of the first night in Zone with the music blaring, the motorcycles roaring, hand-slapping, drink-raising, effigy-hanging clamor and storm trooping through the heart of the city.

The tenor of the scene before him was ordinary, even dull. An ordinary evening among the conquerors. It could be the faculty dining room at Clementia College, where occasional dinners of state, or simple dragged-out faculty gatherings of groups of griping scholars like himself, who would prefer to be heading home or sneaking back into their own familiar caves for another hour or two of double-checking footnotes or red-penning the always disappointing student offerings. If anything Pig’s crew was the more quiet and contained. The men in black suits, even the slovenly, shambling oversized guard-dog penning him in upstairs kept the uniform on and the demeanor quiet. They sat wide-legged and relaxed, or straight up and attentive to their meals; dispersed in threes or fours at separate tablings.

The only figure of significance -- here; or perhaps anywhere -- was Pig himself, in the furthest gathering, sitting at a round table with his back to the window.

Despite the disturbance in the deep interiors of his own bodily organs, the ceaseless tremor in his inner man, some functionary in Keel’s mind slapped to attention. He needs to know this scene, thought told him. He needs to figure out who these people are; that is to say, those permitted to sit at table with Pig.

Keel’s progress stalled at the room’s edge. His guard gestured with a broad, articulate thumb: over there.

He was led to a private table for one. Plus dog. But not far from the others. And with, presumably by chance, a largely unimpeded view of the Boss’s table.

Some figures there he recognized, as he realized now with an uplift of expectation, from images on TV. The one with the skin disease; his pale face and neck blotchy with patches of pink, like some studio whirlwind action-painting with such intensity that he wiped a sweating face with the same rag used on errant paint. Look at that! Have to shower later.

His pink-face seat mate looked like a man who never showered. He was the one who explained things, in bad light from dark corners, giving shadow-facetime on TV.

Would you come over here, Sir, where we can get a better picture?

Nah, fuckit, I’m good where I am.

What was his name? Find out, he told himself.

The others surprised him as well (almost everything now surprised him) by their aggregate absence of aged counsel. Where was the gray hair? They looked like eternal bully boys, fair-faced, self-satisfied, indolent. Creatures out of olde mythes who wielded swords, challenged dragons, or fought with one another over the spoils of dying kingdoms. The polar opposite from the blotchy-faced camera-shy strategists. Yet there must be more who joined with him in the category of ‘schemer’ rather than bully.

The majority of faces, almost unanimously male, appeared not only unmarked by blemish but any sign of their time spent on earth, untouched as they were by experience, undissuaded by suffering, convinced of the trackless, barrier-free path of their own progress through life. Where did such innocent, ignorant assurance come from?

Experience, and its lessons, showed on human faces. Why not on these?

Yet there they were, he thought. Pig’s unfledged kitchen cabinet.

Observe them. Learn the important ones’ names. What they do.

The broad finger of the guard was pushing him, telling him something.

“C’mon. Order something.”

Keel leaned forward to tie Survy’s leash to a table leg.

“They bring you the food.”

Really? Keel thought. Like, you mean, a restaurant?

Maybe his sulky guard had not spent a lot of time eating out before succeeding to his present opportunity.

The dog too? he wondered.

Yet the other seemed to guess this idea. He pointed at Survey, sitting attentively below Keel’s knee.

"You feed ’im. Not me.”

So, Keel thought, dog care was below his escort’s pay grade.

He ordered something with meat in it while keeping a low-key watch on the proceedings at the head table. Little talk, and that mostly by Pig, all out of range of audibility. The pink-faced man nodded frequently, turning his head to the angle that revealed to Keel’s observation the bald spot on his scalp.

Nothing much to talk about? Things going too smoothly? No problems to iron out.

Then it occurred to him: They’re waiting.

Why hasn’t the Sacred Commission made the announcement yet? It was supposed to be today, going by the predictions of the networks. What are the old guys in the Capital waiting for? Why are they not releasing the results of the Platow district voting?

The gang at Pig’s table doesn’t know. Not even Pig?

Pig looked relaxed, but maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was playing the part of the confident, far-sighted leader, who knows that he has his pigeons in a row and will knock each of them down in its proper turn. He acts the part of a man with nothing to worry about. Maybe, Keel thought, he is a man good at acting parts.

When food was brought to him, Keel shared his meat patty sandwich with his dog, breaking off pieces of meat and fingering them directly into her mouth. He ate the few vegetables on his plate himself, assuming the dog would not be interested in these. It did not take much food to satisfy his hunger. It was the knowledge that would be fed that was important: he would not be left to rot in his cell. In this, it occurred to him, he was much like Survy.

Still chewing, he watched as Pig rose and the men at his table followed his lead, taking their departure with the studied casualness of those who knew their bearing was observed.

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