That night, as he slept in the room on the third floor of the lodge, the dog asleep within the faint repetitive whistling of her dog-sleep at the foot of the bed, the intimation of a presence, a sensation different from all the other sensations of the night, woke him abruptly.
Someone, he knew, was in the room.
His eyes opened on her, his female intruder standing with inhuman stillness in front of the window, darker than the room’s darkness.
When had he last seen her?
Her darkness slowly lightening, almost imperceptible, by some operation he could neither see nor understand, she stood halfway between the window and the bed, concealing the severe line of her coiffeur with a tight-fitting skull cap. Clad all in black. Like a diver’s suit, he thought, no free edges to catch anywhere.
Absolutely still. Watching him. Neither threatening, nor beckoning.
He sat up in bed.
“At the bunker,” he said. “And then -- the last time -- you had a car. I thought it was Kevven’s car.”
“But I’m not Kevven. I’m Fama.”
“Don’t worry.” Dead serious. “I won’t bandy it about.”
He thought she would smile at least.
She watched him steadily. Needing no more light than her presence somehow mysteriously provided.
“And you are here why?”
Her eyes were what he looked at. Perhaps the only part of her that was unsealed.
“Are you fully awake?” she asked. Survy was, sniffing cautiously in her direction.
He nodded. “Yes. Unless you’re a dream.”
“No, I’m really here.”
“I won’t ask how you got in here.”
But then he felt the colder air in the room, as if it had walked inside on tiptoe to tap him quietly on the shoulder, or place a hand on his forehead the way you do to wake a sleeper. And realized that the dull light from the parking area was not shining through the glass of the closed window, but through the void of an opened one. He did not think those windows could be opened.
At that, his brain began working.
His witching-hour visitor had somehow climbed the facade of the Chambers Lodge like some oversized, many-legged creature and accessed his window. He had seen quarels walk straight up a column and seriously frustrate a neighbor’s bird-feeding project.
For some reason the realization that a human being had scrambled three stories up a wall like a quarel for the purpose of speaking to him cheered him immensely.
He pulled a blanket up and wrapped it around his waist for modesty as he stood up from the bed.
“You have something to tell me.”
“Good guess. You have to get close to him.”
She spoke the command in the same monotone in which she had offered her few, curt earlier remarks.
“Him? I presume you mean Pig.” A instant of pique. “It seems to me I’ve already aced that one. Cross it off the list.”
She did not at once reply.
“And look where it got me.”
“We know where you are. Obviously.”
Her voice. He knew the voices of students, of colleagues. Policemen, nooz- readers, his long-gone grandparents, market keepers, neighbors. Her voice did not slip anywhere among these parameters. It was an old voice in a young body. A young throat.
It did not resemble the aged voice of the seer in whose company he had first encountered her, but shared something of the much older woman’s bluntness.
“Since you’re here…” Reduced, he felt, to stating the obvious.
Dark suns in a dark sky, her eyes held his.
“All right.” He gave in. “Tell me exactly what you want me to do. How close? For how long?”
Without warning she stepped closer and touched him. On the forehead between his eyes. And on the heart.
He felt a sting, and the room went dark.
He woke at full light, lying supine on the bed, his limbs splayed. He did not remember getting back into bed.
Close to Pig? How close? Hasn’t he been close enough?
A new regime, Keel thought. A new world. A new country?
Pig’s Commonhope of UZ is not Keel’s Commonhope of UZ. The nation of fear and shame, and a little random violence, just to spice things up. Let out the aggressions. Keep the ‘dissenters’ in line. The leets. The malcontents. There were always going to be a few of them, those who insist on being ‘them’ rather than ‘us.’
Whose side are you on? If you’re not with Pig, then what are you doing here?
Why are you still hanging around? Go on, get out of here. If you need a little encouragement, Tiny here will be happy to provide it. Isn’t that right, Tiny? You wearing your boots today? Good man.
The door opens.
“Do you have a name?” Keel back-talked. “And don’t just grunt at me.”
A dark look. Followed by uncertainty. Then something like resignation.
“People call you that? ‘Feeb’?”
Reluctantly. “It’s a nickname.”
“I can call you something else. What’s your real name?”
Big sigh. “Berland.”
“How about Bert? Do you like Bert?”
“Whatever. C’mon. He wants you to go for a walk. Bring the mutt.”
He grabbed his coat and put Survy on a leash, spirits lifted. If they were planning to execute him, they would probably not go to the trouble of working up a phony story. And why bring the dog? On the other hand, maybe Pig has a sick sense of humor.
“I want to tell you something,” Karol Pegasso said. “About my life.”
Don’t ask why, he thought. No point to it.
“Once,” Pig began, than stopped to laugh.
Pig’s driver dropped them off in Capitol Park, just on the other side of the highway. Sure enough, they walk, Survy trotting along beside on the leash, content with a known routine.
Pig, the creature with the longest legs, walked slowly, allowing Keel to keep pace easily and save energy for listening. Survy left the talking to the others.
“Do you know why I laughed?”
“No.” How could he?
“I was about to say, ’Once I had a dream.’” Pig glances his way; he’s listening. “And it just came over me how young I must have been to dream that way. And how foolish.”
He glanced at Keel, reading him. “And then I thought even now I am being foolish.” The look held. “Because, of course, everyone has a dream.”
Keel could not stop himself. “And that is called being young.”
Pig laughed. “So you understand me.”
A few silent strides.
“Nevertheless.” Pig sniffed the air. Deep, fleshy nostrils opening wide. “Nevertheless, I wish still to tell you about this dream of mine.”
He nodded, deferential. “Of course.”
Dreams are important, he thought. They tell us things. Sometimes things we do not wish to hear.
Pig pointed at the dog. “When I was a boy I had a dog. Just a mutt, like that one. He was happy, running about in the village, getting into everything. And I was happy -- sticking my own nose, you might say, whenever my dog sniffed something out. Oh, he got us into trouble sometimes. Not everybody is so neat and clean, or even --” he shot a glance at Keel’s face -- “sanitary.”
Keel agreed, silently.
“Women, I noticed -- some of them -- did not like my dog sniffing around.”
Where was this ‘village’? he wondered. In another country? Another world?
“One day my dog ate something he found on the ground somewhere. A scrap of meat, but the meat was poisoned and he died. I was devastated. I wept.”
Pig grunted. Imagining himself, perhaps, as a boy weeping for dead dog.
And your father, Keel thought, told you to wipe away your tears and act like a man.
And, perhaps, find out who poisoned your dog. And pay them back.
“My father,” Pig said, as if guessing his thought, “was away. He was often away. The village, I think, was too small for him.”
“My mother, though, comforted me. She told me that life was full of losses.”
And not, he wondered, that all dogs go to heaven?
“And then,” Pig sent him a look more revealing than those that came before, a look that in anyone else would have suggested vulnerability, “she beat me.”
Another, piercing look. “No, not for crying. But for allowing my dog to be poisoned.”
Keel began, for the first time, to feel nervous about the outing. His grip tightened on Survy’s leash.
“Oh,” Pig’s glance held, compelling his attention, “I loved my mother. I resented the beating, of course. She hit me with a very thin branch, but I still remember its bite. But I knew my mother loved me and was doing what she thought was best.”
They walk a few paces in silence.
“I hurt too easily. She wished to toughen my hide. Because, she said, the world could be a very tough place.”
“But it didn’t work. I was too soft.” Straight ahead, keeping to the main path, the bigger man’s stride inevitably lengthening. “I had a dream.”
Here it comes, he thought. Pig’s childhood crisis.
“I would study all the great thinkers. At least the ones who asked the question that was on my mind. Why was there so much pain in the world? So much suffering? It wasn’t just all about the dog of course. It was about people. I knew it was myself of course I was worried about too. About me more than anyone.”
Pig stopped. Half-turned to face Keel. “I think that’s natural, don’t you?”
A faint shine, no doubt perspiration, left a sheen on his pale features. The nubs of his horns glowed.
“Why do have people have to die? That’s what I thought about.”
Keel nodded agreement, not needing to pretend. He wondered what expression the other man read on his face.
“Other people, maybe everybody, asked this question. I know that. Even a fool knows that.” His tone was insistent.
“Yes, of course. We all do.”
“So I went to the learned. The wise. When I grew old enough to read their books... Educated enough.”
Keel nodded, but the nod proved not enough.
“I am educated,” Pig said, bluntly. He resumed his pace, gave his companion a sideways glance. “Maybe not as much as some people.”
Keel figured he was ‘some people.’ “Please,” he said, “go on.”
Pig gave him a bluntly examining look, but continued. “I found comfort there. In the words of the so-called ‘great religions’ -- but no answers.”
Keel murmured a sympathetic agreement. So don’t we all.
“Many of us have gone down that path and come to no certain end,” he said at length. “Perhaps there are no answers.”
“So.” Pig began. But fell silent, considering his words.
Not the man, Keel thought, at the podium.
Survy, sitting by her person’s heel and growing restless, looked up and whined.
Pig glanced downward. “So perhaps,” he said, “we are all simply animals.”
“We are surely not gods.”
Pig grunted sardonically.
“One statement from a very old story that has always stayed with me,” Keel ventured, “both for the words themselves and the one who spoke men... a kind of man-god.” He hesitated. “Do you wish to hear them?”
“The words are these. ‘I wish no living thing to suffer pain.’”
“Hmmph.... I suppose,” Pig began, but broke off. “Let’s walk some more. And you can tell me this story.”
“It’s rather long.”
“Ha.” As if at some private joke. “We have all the time in the world.” The Leading Candidate laughed, in that private way, as if he had made joke on he would understand.
“Happily,” he added, “we appear to have no urgent business.”
Keel wondered whether he was treading dangerously, but told him a higly condensed version of the mythical hero who for the sin of treading on divine territory was sentenced to an eternity of torture by the king of the gods. Understandably, the hero curses the tyrant god. Finally, after a series of failed interventions, he realizes he can only find release from his punishment by renouncing his curse.
The two men discussed the tale for some time, drawing on all the big, old words: justice, freedom, revenge, forgiveness. Man and fate.
When this talk ran down, Keel tried bringing the conversation back to what Pig had first told him of his own life.
“Your search for answers to the big questions of life. What did your mother think of that?”
“My mother? She died ... I was eleven.” No change in tone. “A drunk ran her over.”
“Oh.” Keel stumbled. “That’s -- that must have been...”
“It was nothing. I already knew the world was a hard place.”
They made their way back in silence. Pig’s interest in companionship appeared sated. Was it the mention of his mother? Keel thought of his own parents, who as he eventually learned
had died, he was told, in “a plague.” His father had gone overseas to a quarantine zone to volunteer for the clean-up. After a few weeks without a message from him, his mother decided to join him, leaving their child in the care of her parents. She was worried, though there was not supposed to be much danger, his grandmother told him when he was old enough to ask questions.
But the authorities had underestimated the danger. Thousands died. His mother did not return at once even after discovering that her husband was dead. Had she tried to? Or simply chose to stay in order to help the survivors? The volunteers did not scurry away en masse after the first deaths, Keel learned when, later, he researched the subject in books and nooz accounts of the day. Some records were still sealed by the various governments involved. The whole truth, people said, would never be known.
All this happened before the time of Kevin O’Rhule. Keel’s own lifetime had (until now) been remarkably free of major disasters. No big wars. No domestic plagues. No one ever told him that he ought to do his ‘bit’ for his country. He could not ‘miss’ his parents, of course, people he had never known. His grandparents accepted their loss and took care of him. But he always felt, somehow, that he was different.
That evening he was escorted to dinner once again in the Lodge’s dining room. The mood was different. The campaign had gone from restless anticipation to uneasy dissatisfaction. The guards, the true meat in the room, did not even cling together in their own little groups to talk shop and grumble mildly. Keel heard no laughter in the room.
When he moved his chair, circumspectly, to get a better view of the head table against the window, Pig’s perch, he received a bigger surprise.
Glum faces on the others. The top aides; advisers. The honchos. Who either had the boss’s ear or, depending on your point of view, he had theirs. The skin-diseased one with the blotchy pink patches on his face and neck, pinned to Pig’s elbow the night before, was staring straight ahead, too lost in thought to notice the occasional glances sent his way. His name was Bains, Keel had learned from an overheard conversation, and seemed to be regarded as an ‘ideas guy.’
Pig’s ‘campaign ideas,’ he brooded. Shaming?
He recognized the ‘older one’ and the ‘younger one’ as well. The elder was Kinslicker, graying curls, hulking but soft-looking flesh, unlike the campaign’s meaty soldiers (still fit enough to bulge into their ‘large-man’ suits). A man who spoke either in a whisper or a shout. The whisper for the boss, naturally. The basso growl to get the attention of someone anywhere else in the room for whom he had thought up an appropriate task. Feared, Keel guessed, if not liked.
The younger player had the attorney look. Sharp features, close haircut, narrow shoulders. ‘Paid-liars,’ as they were sometimes termed, the breed of pricey spakesmen Pig was likely to have considerable truck with from his many financial enterprises. So some unusual virtue, or exploitation of vice, must have been responsible for choosing this younger cockerel for a place in Pegasso inner circle.
“Who’s that?” Keel had bluntly asked his minder, after poor ‘Feebs’ acknowledged that he possessed speech and could be addressed.
“Cavo,” the man replied curtly. “Keep away from him.”
That was not exactly an answer. Keel regarded his tablemate mildly, without speaking, until the silent finger of his attention began to annoy Feebs. The same tactic had worked long ago on some of his students: the insecure ones.
“I dunno,” he grumbled. “Never see ’em with a girl.”
Keel wondered what had changed the tenor of the room from the previous evening. Then realized the problem was that nothing had.
That afternoon he had flipped on the TV and found, rather to his surprise, that it worked. His was a loose sort of incommunicado. True, the telephone in his room did not work, and no one had come beating at the door to demand access to his presence, all habeas corpulent --because, after all, who would be looking for Keel? Only the sort of person who could climb a blank wall in the dark of night with atomized shoes.
But giving him the TV meant they weren’t trying to keep in the dark. The networks appeared engaged in a sort of anxious cover-up. They talked about everything but the Voting. And since there was nothing else to talk about except the Voting -- and the consequent reign of terror that had been imposed on the local citizenry since the arrival of the Pegasso Campaign, to which all the nooz outlets had apparently agreed to turn a blind eye -- the nightly-nooz proved to be about nothing at all. All Keel detected was the barely suppressed frantic tone of people talking about everything else except what was on their minds.
Keel watched hastily arranged interviews with ‘experts’ on the imminent arrival of spring. Of course, they said, things won’t change immediately. Don’t expect a huge spike in temperatures. Nature takes its time. The ‘experts’ looked as if even they weren’t listening to themselves.
What were they not talking about?
There could be only one explanation. The Sacred Commission had still not pronounced Pig the winner. Not even for the district of Platow.
The campaign could not be really worried, could they? To all outward calculations Pig had the Vote for the country’s new leader in the bag. Another candidate would have to trounce him in a half-dozen Voting Days just to draw even. Would the Commission even bother scheduling that many more Voting Days, if past practice were any guide? Keel could barely remember the names of other candidates, who still bothered to put their names on the Candidates List. They were pygmies compared to the leading lights in the golden days of Kevin O’Rhule, but what had happened to O’Rhule’s lieutenants? Had they grown old awaiting their chance? Retired. Left government for private sectarian jobs in which they socked away billions all without the need to explain their greed to a questioning public? So these straw men, these ragged dolls -- women?; had there been any women? -- who challenged Pig for the highest office were all second-tiers whiner-bees.
Who had Keel been planning to vote for, before the Great Amnesia that seems to surround Pig’s presence erased the idea of voting from his mind? Could he not even call up a name?
Had the entire country slept under some infliction of covert mass hypnosis broadcast from the air waves -- or poisoning the air -- during the lengthy run of Voting Days now winding (apparently) to a long-anticipated conclusion?
For months the news had all been “Pig Wins!” It’s Pig Again! Same Old Victory Prance! No Surprise in Drakes Net! Crookneck Falls to the Leader! Noisey Gets in Line!
Rockland Won’t Rock the Boat!
The Inevitable Candidate Comes to Platow
Final Decision Awaited.
Yes... But the Final Decision for some reason has not yet been proclaimed.
He understood the campaign’s testy mood now.
And since the advisers, the inner circle, did not expect the campaign to continue, they had not made plans.
Should they go on waiting -- give ’em one more day; and on tomorrow, ‘one more’ again? Or go straight to blaming one another for not anticipating this possibility with a back-up plan?
Of course, a plan could still be made to transport everybody to the next goddam po-drunk district. But where would the next Voting Day -- if there had to be one -- be held? Keel could not recall hearing any discussion of this point on the networks. It could be on the opposite end of the entire continental country.
Pig’s absence in the room was a sign of this indeterminancy. An invisible glare at the members of his Inside Circle. Is this how I am served?
That evening sup, passing bits of his ground-meat sandwich (the only dog-worthy choice on the Lodge’s menu) directly into Survy’s mouth, Keel judged himself one of the more relaxed people in the room.
Because he had already done his job. He had looked Pig in the face.