The Country/The Country

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36. A Common Descent from Giants

The image held the air waves. Engineers were frantic. It was not clear to them why their delivery systems, all those ionized particles flitting around the atmosphere in their usual manner, were not achieving the usual, assured, predictable result.

Much theorizing took place -- though experts were unable to sit before the cameras in their studios and appear knowing and unruffled, because studios and hosts and make-up and white shirts and knowing smiles were all useless without transmission. Nevertheless, some of them returned phone calls from reporters and shared their airy speculations with the readers of the nooz-sheets. Solar irregularities. Atmospheric gridlock caused by the international over-use of social communication devices. A rare combination of electrical storms far out in the northern sea.

“But why,” non-specialist voices inquired, again and again, in calls to their local stations, “would a big fat picture of Karol Pegasso be the only thing I can see on my TV screen? I mean enough already.”

For that straightforward question they had no answer at all.

People went to work or school, some returned to the task of picking up after and repairing the damage in downtown Monro caused by the still unacknowledged, catastrophic, and unreported arrival of the Pig Campaign four days before. Shamed men returned to their jobs; hiding their wounds -- the physical ones.

Bullied women made appointments with their specialists or sent out conversational feelers to their closest, dearest confidants, asking, “Did this happen to you? Or to anyone you know?”

Desperately worried husbands and fathers went down to the city police, when the station reopened, to report missing wives or daughters. Some of these young women made their way home a day or two later, closed-mouth and unhappy; and older women made appointments for them as well.

The death of mayoral assistant and councilor Noel Barnep, whose asphyxiated corpse Keel had initially mistaken for an effigy, remained on official records the result of cardiac arrest. Well, the suspicious clinician given the unenviable task of pronouncing cause-of-death rationalized, his heart did stop.

Others, Pig’s many supporters throughout the city, such as those who had gathered at the Dormands’ on the day after his campaign’s arrival, continued to expect momentarily the triumphal declaration the Pegasso Campaign assured them was coming. They celebrated the campaign’s arrival in their city, though more decorously than by the explosions and transgressions exhibited on that first booming day

Condemning the rumors of mayhem and missing persons as the sour grapes of the losing campaigns, the followers of the Leading Candidate celebrated the long-awaited official results of Voting Days in the District of Platow. Pig had taken his usual forty percent of the vote; the second highest total received by any of the other candidates was less than half that amount. By the standards of UZ elections, always determined by mere pluralities, Keel knew this showing was well beyond what was needed to declare Pig’s lead unassailable.

He heard voices in the dining hall once more in the early evening; not simply sounds of eating, but of the mulling, murmuring, sometimes disjointed, or even ill-tempered, but persistent talk of men making plans. But he was tired.

He walked Survy around the parking lot, then went to bed early. Persisting in his voluntary captivity.

Waiting for what would come next.

Sometime in the watches of the night, when almost everyone was asleep, the image of Pig’s magnified features disappeared from the airwaves.

Exactly twenty-four hours had passed since Mrs. Nathan had used Keel’s brain as a psycho-neuron booster to initiate the uncanny captivation of the networks and replacement of their transmissions with the single, unwavering image of the horned Pig. The few household monitors that were in operation, probably through absent-mindedness, were swept free of Pig’s exposure and many of these simply went blank because the network they were attuned to had simply stopped broadcasting.

Those studios still peopled in the hope of just such an animadversion simply returned to showing the canned re-runs kept on hand for late night-early morning broadcast, the tired men and women on hand unable to think of any better way to respond to the transmission piracy of the previous twenty-four hours. Someone would show up in the morning, they reasoned, and tell them how to get back to normal.

Keel woke at first light, found Survy under the bed, concluded accurately that both animals in the room need to urinate, and discovered the return of bland family-oriented silliness

to his own TV monitor. He powered through the available networks, some still offline, others offering their ‘regularly scheduled’ enlightenment with no mention of the service interruption. This response struck him as predictable.

Was it not likely that everyone would decide, with a minimum of discussion, to ignore what had taken place?

After all, that was how the local nooz-shows had treated the pyrotechnics and barbarism of the Pig campaign’s takeover of the city-- as if all that were taking place somewhere on the unobservably dark side of the moon, not a half-dozen blocks away in the Capitol plaza: the ‘frontier injustice’ meted out to prominent opponents or public critics. The shamings, the illegal appropriations of cars and food and drink. The kidnappings. None of these were ever reported by the broadcast networks or in the nooz-sheets either.

Keel had to stop himself from slipping out of the Lodge and walking into a network studio.

How would the networks and the nooz-sheets respond to the revelation of the Pig’s physical sign of animal ancestry? This genetic blot?

Maybe they wouldn’t have to. Maybe the Sacred Commission would come out of seclusion, sending smoke signals to their friends and comrades to come and gather in the ring of stones outside their hideaway where major decisions were announced, and declare that Karol Pegasso was clearly the consensus choice of the voters of the Commonhope of UZ. And set the date for the Anointing Leadership Ceremony.

In which case, conceivably, the whole country, networks included, would engage in a conspiracy to pass over the exposure of Pig’s embarrassing stigma in polite silence. As if the monarch were wandering around in his underwear, and everyone pretended not to notice. Had such a thing ever happened?, Keel asked himself.

If the Commission did declare Pig the winner and set a date for the Anointing Ceremony, Keel reflected, the rule of the country would pass from the transitional care-taking arrangement of senior, but low-flying officials of no presumptuous ambition, assuring that no irreversible steps were taken by government during the sacred period of choosing a new Chief Xec. All of the country’s citizens would be sworn in as well at the anointing, vowing to recommit themselves and their young to a system of government founded on the ideals of popular sovereignty. And on the belief -- as the founding documents framed the matter -- that all men and women enjoyed a common descent from the creative race of giants that in the beginning ruled the urth, laid out mountains and plains, formed the rivers and the sea, grew the great forests, and taught their primary creations (human kind) the arts of cultivation, husbandry, speech, and governance back in the Hallowed Beginning Days.

And so the newly anointed ruler, who had triumphed according to the laws of the Sacred Commission, would guide the ship of state, as he had been chosen to do.

And be solemnly empowered to do all this in despite of the now universally glimpsed evidence that Karol Pegasso’s descent must have passed through some other stages (besides immaculate conception by Giants).

Still, it would not be unheard of for the people of the Commonhope of UZ to ignore, almost universally, an inconvenient truth. In their history, the citizens of this favored country, had almost unanimously joined in a conspiracy of pretense to overlook astounding injustices committed by a majority of the populace upon vulnerable minorities. Most notably, of course, in that original sin of appropriating unto their own use the property, meaning in this instance the entire land mass of the Middle Continent, from its earlier inhabitants, seen as an underdeveloped society and benighted culture of warring tribal factions too fond of strong drink, herbal smoke and other forms of inebriation, unguarded indulgence in the use of firearms, fast cars, ruinous practical jokes, hideously bad music, coarse clothing, open lewdness, and murderously prolonged kinship feuds.

The remnants of these societies had been cadged, manipulated, cheated and out and out driven off their ancestral lands and pushed northward. So it was in these later days that the last refuge of a scoundrel in UZ was to declare, “At least you can’t say I come from The North.”

This crime of Original Displacement, as Keel well knew, has never been officially acknowledged and was almost entirely forgotten in the day-to-day commerce of life in UZ. But it was not the only example of mass self-blinding when it came to the nation’s iniquities, since the citizens of the Commonhope, from the original founders onward, had also turned a blind eye to the ancient sin of labor-stealing practiced in the lands from which the people of UZ emerged in those misty days of yore (and mine) to find new and fairer lands in a continent of their own.

In their early centuries the UZ stole the labor of people kidnapped from other countries to perform the heavy labor required by a new country that needed cities built, roads and ports constructed, mines dug, forests felled, and lands broken for cultivation. In time the practice of labor-theft -- which was more accurately termed ‘freedom-theft’ since those taken for laborers were also deprived of freedoms basic to people of the Commonhope (including personal sovereignty: most basic of all) -- was abandoned. But no recompense had ever been offered to those who were the victims of this most vile of social crimes. No one defended the practice in the current era. But no one, even in the most recent Voting Seasons, proposed any measures to address this ancient injustice and thus remove its moral burden from conscience of the country.

What would the people of UZ say, Keel asked himself, were those fabled creator-godes of their world’s early days to come back to urth and weigh their children on the balances of justice?

Nor had any of these ancient wrongs been faced in the halcyon days of Keven O’Rhule.

Could it be, conceivably, he asked himself, that the legacy of that happy era was too much complacency, self-congratulation, and easy contentment? With the result that the unconscious sense of some deeper need had fed the ill-directed popular enthusiasm for Pig to wake up the country and give it a new sense of purpose?

And so if someone were to object, on the networks in some other public forum, that the country’s citizens and voters ought to be suspicious of the animal magnetism of Leading Candidate Karol Pegasso because -- after all -- he was an animal....

...would not the soul of the country respond, if not in so many words -- in fact without any words at all -- but in the very style of that determined personality: yes, but so are we all.

Yet again, Keel asked, having worried himself back to his starting point, what would the Sacred Commission do?

Would it choose to believe, as had so many of the voters, that the high office and its great responsibilities, would tame a leader’s fiery temperament? Temper him. Hem in him with awesome responsibilities.

That was what happened to the men who held high office, wasn’t it?

But what if that endlessly insisted upon, but hopelessly vague promise of ‘change’ wasn’t merely an emotional appeal to all who were discontented?

What if he truly meant it?

This was the thought that pinned Keel to his cell-like lodging in the Pegasso campaign headquarters on the morning that the broadcast networks went back, without a syllable of explanation, to ‘normal.’

It made him afraid.

“Still here, I see,” Pig greeted him.

Keel, as often seemed to be happening, was caught off guard.

He had put the leash on his dog, tied his shoe laces, and followed the candidate, a trio of campaign heavies now trailing behind, down the lift where all five crowded in (the candidate, apparently, did not do stairs) and left the building by the Lodge’s principal entrance. From which the party set off on the same route to the capitol grounds that Pig and he had taken on their previous, unescorted outing.

Yes, he was still here.

No one had instructed him otherwise. His door had been left unlocked. He had not ‘heard’ from Mrs. Nathan. So, yes, he has chosen to stay.

That much was clear now. He was here on his own recognizance.

“The reason, I suppose,” he answered Pig when a suitable space had opened between them and the trailing escort, “is I’m waiting to see what you’re going to do.”

“Ha.”

They walked a few strides, the taller man slowly increasing his pace. “I’m waiting to see too.”

They continued down a gravel path, a thin planting of trees screening the sight of the Lodge behind them, heading toward the capital grounds.

“But I’m not sure I understand you, Keel. Are you referring to this business of the horns?”

Keel hesitated, unprepared for candor. Failed to reply

“So you are.”

They walked some more. Somewhere a bird called. It would be spring, Keel thought. Eventually.

“This business? It’s nothing, Keel,” Pig said, turning his head to look squarely at his companion. “This thing was meant to be an assault upon me, and the campaign, but is a mere act of desperation, and will change nothing... What do they think will happen? Do they think I will run away in shame and crawl into a cave and hide?”

Keel shook his head. Of the possibilities he had considered, that was not one of them.

“Well, I assure you I won’t. If that’s what they think, they don’t know me.”

But what did Pig think of this ‘them’? Did he know, or have any idea, who ‘they’ were? Anxiety over this possibility froze his tongue.

Pig laughs, looks away.

“This -- desperate gesture -- is simply another reason to support my campaign. People won’t love and admire this human animal, this ‘Pig’ that I am, any less because of a slight disfiguration... to my handsome person.”

He laughed at this final phrase, and so Keel felt it was safe to join in.

The Leading Candidate can laugh at his own immodesty. Pig was a big man with bold features, a commanding voice and manner, and the nubbed remnants of boney protuberances that told the world what he was. It was, Keel agreed, nothing to be ashamed of, but no one would ever call him ‘handsome.’

He understood something then. He was witnessing an invention, not a prepared speech. That Pig was inventing himself, his next self, in his presence.

“Look, Keel,” the candidate continued, “why should I love myself any less for a trick of physiognomy? Some men are handsome, some are homely. Our bodies are the given... We come into this world with one suit of clothes. Our own flesh. We must wear it.”

“Well,” Keel said, evenly, “nobody reasonable would quarrel with any of that.”

“Then we agree. For ‘reasonable’ people, as you put it, my animal reminders should pose no difficulty.... But do you also see where I am going? People should love themselves.”

“Love?” Keel asked. He had not anticipated hearing that word from the mouth of Pig.

“Love of the self... Not that cheap narcotic of people of loving everybody.” Pig came to a halt and gestured. “You can’t love everybody -- nobody does! It’s a lie. It’s unnatural.”

Keel stayed silent, paid attention.

“But you can love yourself. That’s natural. And in fact you should. You must.... This is the new message of my campaign. The old philosophy guyz said you should know yourself.”

He glanced at Keel, the old books guy, for confirmation. He nodded.

“People should know themselves, sure. But people must love themselves.”

Keel nodded again. That was what he was for. He began to feel funny about his role: he was an enabler.

“If you do,” Pig resumed, “you’ll look after yourself. Your own best interests. You won’t let people take advantage of you... Not the government... And not the intruders.”

“Intruders?” Keel questioned.

No answer came.

“I’m not aware of any intruders.”

“Look around,” Pig said. “Some of these – they call them the ‘Flexibles’” …

He broke off, gave Keel a heavy glance…

“-- don’t look like UZ to me. Where do they come from?”

Flexibles? Keel thought. Were they the people with the tattoos? The funny haircuts?

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

“Well, they don’t look like they belong here to me.”

Don’t they love themselves as well, whoever they are? But he was silent, unsure of his ground.

“You see how I do this?” Pig said, pausing. He turned so the two men were looking fully at one another. “You take what people say and you turn it to your advantage.”

Was he seeking praise? What, Keel could not help thinking, about that hanging body?

“They say I’m animal. Well, we should accept our animal nature just as we accept and love our human nature. It’s natural.” He was nodding, affirming his new posture. “It’s natural to love yourself, take care of yourself, look after your own best interests. Look after your family.”

Where was Pig’s family? Who did it consist of?

Keel had none; he was not about to examine the other man on this point. But it bothered him not to say anything in reply.

“What about the people you don’t love?”

Pig took step away to peer between the thicker trees and take in the view of the Capitol building, with its flag flying.

When he turned back to Keel, his expression had gone through a change, flattening. The candidate’s battle mask had returned.

“Some must be sacrificed,” he said. “For the greater good.”

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