A story of fascism.
Farms, just away on a border, formed themselves around a large village; sometimes the farms were to the west of the border; other times to the east; and even occasionally, albeit rarely, to the south; as political winds directed; it was a group of farms, a pair of gin mills and a small collection of nascent factories and small businesses gently encircling a large village.
Here, where the land was wide fields and rolling hills and bright sun and the borders elastic, slapdash nature — green, verdant and insistent — met the occasional slipshod and erratic betterment projects of the shuffling cast of governmental overlords. In one such instance stood a half completed bridge: which bridge, either through fiat or dictum meeting the optimism of the zealot, had been started and abandoned several times in defiance of nature or in flex of industrial might.
One rainy day, at the site of construction, half-dug ditches, precarious heavy machinery and heavy rains, were met by an aimless herd of cows. The cows, wandering up a hill, triggered a mudslide. As a result five cows died but also several pieces of heavy machinery were utterly destroyed and half of the half of the bridge that was built required destruction and rebuilding.
Wye, the party sector chief for the region, launched an investigation into the incident. Very shortly after the cows were identified — to the surprise of no one — Wye found the owner of the cows, an old childless farmer, to be at fault. Wye fined the farmer one further cow. This fine was calculated on the theory that since the current party chiefs at the capital had set a price of one fifth of a cow as monthly tribute, and five cows had imperiled the betterment project, the farmer owed one total cow, also.
The farmer, despite having to bow to the exquisite logic of the fine — Wye had, indeed, forced him to bow in acknowledgment or face a charge of deliberate sabotage — did not like it. He took to drink. More precisely, he took further to drink, nightly in the gin mill catering to farmers and soon he began, without anything in the way of a plan, or even intent, to foment rebellion. At first he was not taken seriously: a drunken spectacle that amused only the other farmers. Each night, however, his eloquence apparently waxing as his sobriety waned, and as the elliptical tread of alcoholism and courage merged, some of the other farmers started to listen seriously… or they were less mocking in their agreement or their regard. Short stretches of lucidity, between the drinking off of the dust of the day and incipient stupor, emerged and conversations sparked. Soon tales of other cows, one fifth or otherwise, surfaced. For the innkeeper, a man with ears exquisitely tuned to the difference between idle talk and truly political speech, this was a bridge too far… and he barred the talkative farmer.
The farmer chased his drink and his anger and his growing aspirations to the other inn in the village. Until the old farmer arrived, the other inn had been the sole province of the factory workers. A few of the more adventurous younger farmers, having seen him cast out of the old gin mill, followed him to the new.
The factory workers, daily coming from the crushing industrialization they has so recently been told would be there as their salvation, drank even as the farmers did. In general, however, the factory workers, being bred from the city, possessed lesser constitutions and, as a result, their inkeeper, expertly tuned to a profit, was able to sell them drink diluted, at least in comparison to that swallowed at the farmers inn. Whether it was caprice or some trick of the deities none officially followed, the watered down liquor existed in the sweet spot for the old farmers lucid moments and so he was able to talk more, for longer, and to a larger audience.
At first the uneasy acquaintance, the farmers with the factory workers, led to some tensions, but the shared misery, and alcohol, soon smoothed the tensions into convivial, even at times jovial, comradeship. The farmer worked his spleen as the factory workers exercised their livers and soon, each night, the cows lost went from five cows to six, the actual number, then to more and soon whole herds and vast ranges of livestock missing from where stood the pitiful meager leftovers from the overlords. The factory workers, not knowing from cows or even farming, nodded at the fascinating new turn their fascist overlords had taken. The talk, very quickly, moved from injury to injure: a clear will to hurt someone emerged and was shared by all.
Wye, the party sector chief who prided himself on the strength of his ears, soon heard of this drunken talk of rebellion. He sent spies into the factory and into both gin houses and soon learned the extent and the genesis of the unrest. He decided to teach the farmer a public lesson.
One day there was an accident at the factory. A long un-repaired derrick, put to an attempt to lift more than it ever could unrusted, broke free of all mooring and restraint and, alternately, swung, scattered, bashed and then crushed anything in its way. Five factory workers were killed immediately, bluntly. A sixth died when the foreman, also a local party boss, was slow to unlock the exits in an attempt to salvage something of production. The young worker, a female, bled to death on the floor, unmoved from where a whip chain from the derrick had ripped open her neck, while the foreman forced the remainder of the workers to leave her be and account for their widgets or doodads, or whatever it is they had been tasked with making that day. The slick blood draining from her was shiny against the grimy dusty factory floor and, darkening her party uniform, set against the pale, aggressive blue, slowly turned it to the deepest rust and black and slid across the floor thickening into the dirt and the dust. An ambulance waited, almost patiently, outside the factory not twenty metres away. By the time the ambulance was let in, no serious injuries had survived and so the medicos contented themselves with iodine on the cuts and bruises.
It may have been simple coincidence that, just, on that same afternoon Wye gathered his ten biggest thugs and ordered them to wait at the gin mill with orders to teach the farmers a public lesson. They did so, waiting until, his farmers day done, the troublesome one with his tight gait, ever present dirt and permanent scowl was seen heading up the road towards his new favorite gin house. Younger farmers, a thin pack here and a straggle there, soon could be seen coming up the road also. The dust of the road swirled in the heat as, at that appointed time the sun low in the late after sun, the factory was unleashed and the workers, what was left of them, were let go for the day: they leaked out of the factory, reluctant to let go of the dead, for they had known that by tomorrow no one would say their names or even acknowledge that they once had names. They approached the gin house from the other side as the farmers.
As the old farmer passed by the official goons a wind swept up sending a devil of dust even over the roof of the gin house and the few scattered surrounding buildings.
Despite the dust that swirled around, or maybe because of it, the encroaching factory workers, on the one side, and the swelling ranks of young farmers on the other, sensed a tumult sharper than the ordinary and at first they, both, stopped. A few of them even, perhaps unconsciously, began to pivot their hips and knees: instinctually turning. But with the press of the crowd, sheer curiosity and their cunning need for a drink, they pivoted again and few even quickened their pace. As the wind died the dust continued flying as they approached and they soon heard the sharp language and dull thump of blows and kicks and, again, they stopped.
Another gust of wind, this one straight with the road blew the dust down. It revealed to the approaching farmers, and to the approaching workers, the standing thugs over the motionless body of the old farmer.
Wye’s thugs themselves saw the dust put down and realized they were between two large, and growing, classes staring at them intently. A thin gurgle, spittle and hiss escaped the farmer, along with a smooth, almost languid, rhythm of blood from the wounds in his chest, chasing his last breaths in a hover over the ground, swirling with the blood and the dust and the wind. The thin dry brown and yellow of the road and sun slick with a sudden darkness and depth of the blood.
The largest bully, also perhaps the stupidest, looked down at the dying farmer and laughed to himself. He looked at the factory workers. He turned to the farmers, flexing his shoulders and said something belligerent to no one in particular. No one moved except he. And when he realized that nobody had obeyed his commands he too stopped and looked around. He nodded at this fellow thugs, some of whom looked as surly as he, others starting, furtively and breathlessly, to look scared. The farmers continued staring. The factory workers looked at each other.
The dumb thug set his shoulders and marched straight towards the farmers as if push the whole lot of them aside and walk straight through. In an instant there was no dust, no shadow and the heat and haze of the day sharpened into a clarity; every line of muscle; the sharp flat of horizontal road against vertical building; every heft of bone and beam; every clear thing became clearer and sharper and painfully delineated. A farmer, expressionless, received the thugs grasping hands and with a twist and flash of knife, gouts of blood lept off the thug to clarify further in the air. The big thug reeled, inhaled sharply, eyes wide with fear and shock and pain while an impossibly thin scream started deep in the back of his throat, never to be finished or fully realized. The other farmers descended upon him and began tearing and punching and kicking and tearing.
A few of the nine remaining thugs launched themselves at the farmers but they were stopped with the noise of sudden shout and whelm of bodies as the factory workers charged upon them. The remaining thugs fled, but not very far.
Wye, the party sector chief, waited at the train station for the experts the Central Committee was sending. They were on their way to clean up after the riot and to deal with the press. Wye sat impassively, directly across the train tracks from the loading dock of the factory. The factory, of the same basic architectural heft as the train station, was magnificently ugly: this ugliness derived from the inescapable contradictions of both being grotesquely overbuilt and completely inadequate. The brown and grey against the rolling green hills behind it provided an equally sad counterpoint
The whistle of the locomotive sounded, and the train soon hove into view, ponderously in noise and rumble and achingly slow to stop. As the rumble died, the smoke wafted and the hiss of industrial might and aggression settled. Wye stepped back discretely when he saw four journalists, including one from a foreign country, exit the train and hurry off the platform, cameras all at the ready.
Wye was watching the receding backs of the hurrying journalists when two men and a woman approached him. The first was a slim, unassuming young man with a shock of barely tamed blond hair, about thirty. He introduced himself as Hugh. Hugh introduced Watt, a slither of a man, greasy hair and the sharpest nose Wye had ever seen, bringing with him layers of smoke: stale, old, somewhat newer, newer and latest bitter sting from his cigarette. He was older. The young woman, demure and nearly not there, neither ugly nor attractive, but carrying a sort of cloak of unobtrusive and discrete about her. Hugh introduced her as Watt’s daughter and amanuensis. Her name was Sue Watt.
Watt’s cigarette was nearly finished as he fished another out of his pocket and lit it with the final fire of the previous. Behind them, at a distance, two large men both with a sickly yellow cast to their skin, they were soldiers — clearly — but not in uniform. The two men standing at distance, Hugh told Wye with an offhand wave, were Venn and Weir.
Wye drove them to scene of the incident: the dusty, now deserted thatch of road; where the offending gin house had stood now a charred, desiccated husk, was shrinking from them.
Wye proceeded to describe to them his scenario, where his warders and a few loyal party members, questioning a rowdy farmer who had been a known trouble maker, had been set upon, first by factory workers and then by the farmers, all of whom were on their way into or out of the gin house. Wye told them how the farmers had set fire to the gin house and had joined the howling mob of factory workers who had tried to turn and march on the factory. Luckily, Wye had been able to call the garrison out to quell the disturbance before they had been able to damage the factory. 250 people had died, including the original farmer, the warders, several dozen farmers, some party members, a few soldiers from the garrison and the rest whatever number of factory workers.
Hugh corrected Wye and said that there were only six dead. In the very next sentence he ordered Wye to establish six different processing centers for 36 each of the bodies, a seventh place to hold the remaining bodies and yet another place to process the relatives. Wye had to ask him to repeat himself, pretending rather that he didn’t hear, deciding not to risk the admission that he did not understand. No person outside of the six of them would be allowed to see more than six dead bodies at once, Hugh said to Wye. Since after all, he said, there were only six dead bodies to see. Watt, lighting another cigarette, asked Wye to tell him, when the processing was in place, which processing center would be nearest Wyes office. Then they drove back to the village proper and were deposited at the local party center. Wye took them all back to his office to arrange the processing centers.
Fully 175 of the six who died were explained away almost immediately by calling them arrests and subsequent transports for re-education. Hugh had wanted to make the number of six dead as many as 200, so as to have only 50 to both explain and fit into six. Watt argued for the six number to be 150 as more was not enough of a challenge and that he hadn’t come here to be bored. Hugh noted that the village was small enough that a sufficiently large number of official dead would provide far too many families with far too many bodies. Sue Watt broke the tie by simply writing down 175 in pen upon the official transcript of the events. Hugh threatened to pull rank, but Sue Watt offered a further 20 who had been, or would be, shot while trying to escape, as a fail safe, if necessary. Hugh waited to agree, assenting only when Sue Watt offered a quarter of the newly vacant factory jobs as patronage for him, then farmland — or the redevelopment of — for his friends and finally a number of real real slots at political re-education camps for his enemies.
Sue Watt also made a note to follow up with 175 notices to various families that their relative, who had been sent for re-education, had died in… She listed escape attempt, accident, disease, enemy action, inmate violence. She tried, without success, to think of one more to make six. She would spent some free time later distributing the 175 more or less evenly over the covers.
It was decided that Wyes office would process the relatives seeking the bodies of their relatives. After all, they were some 100 people waiting already, press also, and they were asking to see their relatives bodies. The relatives of the dead who had been arrested and sent for re-education were given the camp numbers of live inmates in real camps, far away, who were, in fact, being re-educated. Many of them received the mails and would use them for various purposes, mostly entertainments. Some, in time, would even tried to write back.
Sue Watt worked the census and all the local official documentation, determining who had actually died, their age and identifying markers, Which, among the dead, were the living that had been sent for re-education and who, among the dead, had died at the scene.
Watt took over the party center and spent the next two full days alternatively issuing press releases and questioning the validity of travel papers held by the reporters. The press releases were insipid and dull detailing minor inconsistencies followed by minor corrections to the minor inconsistencies and, all the while, repeating the number six. The names of the dead, he stated again and again, would not be released until the relatives had first been notified. After the central office of the party center had acquired a more or less hovering and permanent haze of smoke, Watt stopped veiling his contempt.
The journalists got the smoking and smelly end of Watts blunts as he succeeded in either running them out of the village, jailing them outright or affecting a mitigating silence. Some of the journalists, it was later said, left town for the sheer joy of not having to smell Watt.
Hugh, Venn and Weir spent the two days shuttling bodies from processing center to processing center, constantly counting up to six and revising plans when the numbers didn’t get there, or threatened to go over, constantly re-working the numbers in constant co-ordination with Sue Watt who held the key of the dead-not-dead and directed the relatives in such way that no family saw any other family at any processing center. Commiseration would breed talk and talk might undo the careful interment of the dead.
Watt and Hugh were in constant communication to avoid problems, yet still problems arose, as when they inadvertently sent two dead brothers, one a farmer and the other a factory worker to separate processing centers. They realized their error almost too late, and the fear that the parents of the dead brothers would, separately, see two instances of six bodies, sent them into an overdrive of hasty and anxious search for the proper bodies so that they could put them in the proper places.
Sue Watt saved the day by intercepting the parents on the way out of one center, where they had collected the body of the younger son, with the joyous news that a clerical mixup had occurred and the older son was not dead, but alive — only they could not see him as he had been sent for re-education.
And so it went on like this for more than two days: a constant shuffling and re-shuffling of papers, names and bodies and places. More than one dead person was administratively re-animated only to be sent for re-education, in either instance remaining forever out of reach. Bureaucratic incompetence was blamed for this sort of snafu or when the reverse occurred and a spot on the re-education roster was closed and another body had to be accounted for to the relatives. Venn and Weir made sure that nobody talked about what they saw and that no one person, or group of persons, saw more than one processing center.
At twilight of the second day, they found that they only had nine unclaimed bodies all the other dead having been collected and 168 of the re-educated were accounted for. They decided to bring them to one central processing center. Once they had lost a few of the bodies to gathering families, and remained with five in one place, Watt made it six by garroting Wye. Sue Watt called Wye’s wife, just as Wyes bulging eyes went dark and he ceased attempting to take one more breath, to tell her of the tragedy: Wye, tireless party worker, had succumbed to a heart attack in the wake of the burden of the tragic bourgeois uprising. Wye and Hugh began playing cards, waiting for the remaining claimants to come for the remaining bodies, Wye’s wife among them.
Later, Sue Watt walked to the scene: the shards of the inn jumbled around her, the open roof helpless against the night, the thick walls of the factory, in the distance, but hovering with a menace and a heft she could feel even at this remove: dark out of darkness.
Hugh had followed her, as she knew he would. The stood apart, under the pale full moon, upon a section of hardwood floor more or less untouched. He laid down the pack he carried. They stared at each other as they each slowly undressed. Hugh paused three or four times to swig from the bottle he had taken from Wye’s office, its glass pale gleaming against the moon. After a time of staring at each other undress, Hugh moved at her and grabbed her roughly. She pushed him back and he grabbed again. Their coupling, brutal, loud and without pity, scared away many local creatures and would have trashed their surroundings if those surroundings hadn’t already been destroyed.
Soon they were covered in soot from crashing into the walls and dust from rolling on the floor scratched from rough edges and sweat from their efforts and the pale gloom of the moon rose on their gruntings and clouds passed and scared villagers some distance away were thinking the unofficial demons of the six officially deceased had returned.
‘Do you remember the first time we did this?’ Sue Watt asked. She too was drinking from the bottle, sitting splayed against the remains of a wall, nude beneath the grime and a camouflage of streaks and lines from which her teeth and the whites of her eyes dashed out in vicious gleaming. The cut marks on her forearms and legs, some fresh and raw others old and smooth, traced a geometric precision of self harm.
“Yeah. The far southern province.” Hugh was lying flat on his back, his body equally streaked and staring up at the clouds scudding before the stars and the moon. He took the bottle from her and drained it. “The party chairmans psychotic son.” He tossed the bottle into the farther darkness and rolled a short distance to where the canvas sack had been pushed. He extracted another bottle and in a smooth practiced motion uncorked it and drank equally as deeply as before.
“We pulled the son outta the fire. Then he tries to find another victim who fought back and killed him.” He laughed heartily. “I guess the truth sometimes catches up with you.”
She laughed bitterly, “I’ve had the truth catch up to me several times. I just tell a bigger lie.” She looked over at him. “Light me.” She said.
Hugh reached into the canvas sack and extracted a pack of cigarettes and tossed it to her. He returned to the sack and started fishing around in it. She took a smoke out of the pack and pressed it to her lips… and waited for him to produce the lighter. The cigarette jumped with palest light as she spoke, “Do you ever think about how it’s going to end?”
Hugh continued the search for lighter, finally upending the entire thing, spilling two more corked bottles, a handgun and various notebooks and other small items unidentifiable in the dark. He shuffle the contents to a single layer and felt around until he put his hands on what could only be a lighter.
“What did you say?’’ He took another drink after the arduous labor of finding the lighter. He stood up and moved to where she was sitting.
“Do you ever think about how it’s going to end?’’ In the gleam of wan moon, her eyes were diamond hard and flashing, as sharp as the fresh scars on her forearm. He leaned down just enough to put the lighter right in front of her face.
“It’s going to end for us the same way we end it for others. We’ll be caught in a lie, or our lies will run out of untruth. You’ll come up against someone smarter than you. I’ll come up against someone luckier than I. That’s how it’s going to end.’’ He flicked the lighter on and splay of light against her face jumped over the grime and dust, flickering against the face of her and sending jagged shadows across her jagged scars. “I just hope I’m good and tight when it happens.’’ He took a long long swig of the bottle, curving back away as he simultaneously tried to keep the lighter steady. She moved back and forth trying to connect the end of the cigarette with the beginning of the flame. She grabbed his hand to steady the flame, pulling him further off balance. The effort was too much for him and he toppled over, as she adroitly plucked the lighter, though it burned, from his hand and restarting it, lit the cigarette herself.
As he tried to sit up, she grabbed the bottle and started pouring over his stomach. “Cleaning..’’ she said, as he looked at her… She reached and started wiping grime and soot from his parts, dousing it further with alcohol in effort to clean.
“It’s what we do…’’ He replied.
“It’s what we’re good at…’’ She echoed.
“It’s what we’re good for…’’ He returned again
“Must you always have the last word?’’
“Yea — umph’’ She had grabbed his parts and was squeezing them tightly.
“I don’t think so.’’ Her wicked smile white and pale and steady against the tippling light of the cigarette bouncing up and down slightly ahead of the beat of her words.
Sue Watt stood on the platform the next morning, awaiting the next train away from the village. The job done, the story put down, they were away to a next job. On the bench, a little to the left and behind her, sat her father, Watt. He was diligently counting cigarettes, attempting a determination of how many he would need on his person to provide continuity through the trip. Sue Watt watched him counting his cigarettes. A drop of rain hit her in the nose but she refused to look up. In the recess of one palm, she flicked the lighter, the one she had kept from Hugh, and extinquished it, pressing the heat of it into the pain in her hand. She did this again and again. She knew there would be scar and no way to explain it. Still she kept at it.
To Sue Watt’s right, a few metre’s down the platform at the station telephone, Hugh stood, pretending to talk to someone while coyly taking sips from a hip flask. To her left, Venn and Weir stood dumbly, unmoving, slack jawed and even yellower than before. Sue Watt idly wondered if they scored more heroin here or were digging into their travel supplies. Even more idly, she wondered which one had given the hepatitis to the other. More rain started to fall. The rain started to fall even as the sun continued to shine, and the four men, taking their cue from Sue Watt, stood unmoving, feeling the rain even as they tried to imagine the sun upon their faces.