Paul A. Toth
Location: Grand Blanc, MI
Published in: WebDelSol, The Blue Moon Review, Eclectica, Pif
MEMORIES OF SALVADOR
- Being the Early Account of the Struggles of Arturo Giuchici -
To the Director of Holidays:
I humbly offer my services as adjunct to the Director in the Mission of the Changing of Holidays, as set forth by the Island Republic, which embraces all time, and me at all times. Thus I submit to you, and the people, in whose name I hope to fulfill my duty, as before God.
The long table before the Director was littered with the pages of calendars. Every page included a different photo of the Republic; it looked as though someone had cut the island into flat squares and strewn the pieces across the table. The single window that faced the sea made one more living calendar page, while the other walls were cast in the island's pale blue shadows.
Suddenly the Director noticed Arturo, who must have been standing in the hallway for the past fifteen minutes. "I forgot you were coming," the Director said. "Excuses -- I'm always making them."
"That's all right, sir."
"Arturo, you throw words around so heavily. Your letter made me laugh. You take the government's business too seriously. Frankly, the only reason I hired you was to help you realize that life is not a sober affair. Certainly what we call the Changing of the Holidays is the least sober of government affairs."
Arturo's face turned red. He pretended to wipe sweat from his forehead, but it was not at all hot that day. "I --"
"Don't worry, we've all been virgins. People only suspect when you worry too much about concealing it. This must be your first employment?"
"Other than --"
"Sure, chores, that kind of thing. Why don't you have a seat? Do you know why they call the Republic an island? Do you know how big it is? What about the United States? After all, the earth itself is an island of sorts. And so we must believe in our own destiny."
"I am completely in support."
"I am certain you are, certain. You've heard some talk about it. Why not support it, eh? You are a true believer, no doubt?"
"True believer in?"
"Well, in what do you believe?"
"The Lord is my savior, of course, first of all."
"Of course! Yes, He is indeed. I knew you would feel that way. Now, speaking of Christ, that brings us to the first holiday. You know, of course, that no one can with certainty state when Christ was born?"
"I always assumed at Christmas."
"Of course he was born on Christmas. Perhaps I should have asked, 'When is Christmas?'"
"Ah, actually, that is incorrect. Not that it matters too greatly. No, what is important is that we properly celebrate our symbols and rites, wouldn't you say?"
"I'm still not certain about the date, sir."
"Well, let me put it to you this way: Christmas will be the first holiday we change, as it has been decided that it will be celebrated on the Fourth of July, when normally the island celebrates the birth of America, which has long been our benefactor and, it can even be said, our second savior, until now, at least. Yes, until now, we have required a little help, like any newborn baby."
"I don't understand."
"We'll celebrate the births of our two saviors on the same day."
"Why? To magnify, I suppose, the potency of the symbols and to suggest that we do things our own way. We have grown. We are adolescents now."
"But the people may not understand. I'm not sure I do."
"We'll find out soon enough. Today is the 2nd of July, after all."
"Already we'll celebrate this way?"
"Oh, yes. It's a surprise, actually, sort of a special entertainment. You'll be there, of course, and..." the Director paused for a moment, "and your mother, Christina, and brother, Michael. They'll be there too?"
Arturo did not answer at first. Then he said, "Of course we'll be there. It seems strange, though."
"Right now on the other side of the island there are still people chasing each other around with sharp sticks. Surely that is stranger than altering the dates of holidays."
"And if Christmas is to be in July, then when will Easter be?"
"Easter... hmm. Well, no decision has been made. I hadn't thought about that. We might combine that day with Good Friday, to emphasize that things are speeding up, that it need not be a three day spread. I mean, we know what happened. We have faith. No use prolonging things."
His mother would be outraged at all of this, and possibly even his brother Michael, an atheist who, while he would not care about the religious aspect, was already embarrassed by his country; for instance, the President had recently ordered that the tricolor flag be changed to depict a giant cracked egg). Arturo, however, felt a responsibility to his country, imagining that his reasonableness -- the Director had been quite right to identify his sober nature -- might serve the tiny body politic well, calming its more antic elements. It was that or follow his Uncle Andrew in becoming a priest; there were few careers on the island for a thinking man.
"Arturo!" the Director snapped. "What in the hell are you thinking about now? You're too abstract, wandering around in your head all day. Now I want you --" he lifted a large cardboard box from the floor and dropped it on the table, "-- to take these pamphlets and distribute them in the streets. Just dump them along the sidewalks and throw them at people."
Arturo picked up the box. It was too heavy for him and he stumbled out to the street, the Director giggling behind him. Irritated, he immediately dumped out half the contents. The wind caught the pamphlets and strew them into the hands of passersby, who mumbled to each other as they read.
He continued through the streets, leaving pamphlets here and there. Gradually the crowd became more and more raucous, with laughter and shouting and arguing and cajoling. When Arturo had just two handfuls of the documents remaining he tossed them in the air and ran away, sneaking off to the trail that led away from town toward his home. There, outside the little white house, stood his mother, who was already pointing her finger into a thin man's face, shouting, "Don't tell me this is a good idea! Blasphemy is what this is. Our government has gone crazy. The President is a nut job. Were you the one to pass these lies out, beanpole?"
The man shook his head and flailed his arms until finally he spun around and bolted into the underbrush. Now Arturo stood alone, waiting for his mother's rebuke, but she did not notice him. She went into the house and slammed the door and then Arturo heard dishes breaking, which dishes often did in his home.
Now what have I done? he wondered. He found a rock and sat on it. He could hear shouts coming from the center of town. It might be a riot, the first one since the new President had been elected.
Arturo knew the people needed a religion and a government they could believe in. He had tried to serve both. After all, he had prayed this morning, both for himself and for the people and their leaders. He had asked God to confirm in his mind that he had chosen the correct vocation. He had thought the Changing of the Holidays was meant to set signal that priorities would be set straight, not turned on their heads.
He needed to talk to someone, but certainly not his mother in her irrational state. He decided to find Michael, who liked to go to the other side of the island and laugh at the Stickmen. Arturo ran across the island to the hilltops that formed a rim around the territory of the native islanders.
"Why don't you try rocks," Michael screamed, throwing a handful of pebbles at the Stickmen.
"For God's sake," Arturo said, "what would mother think?"
"That I should confess, of course. But everybody knows, even the sun, that I like to torment these idiots. Look at them!" He bellowed with laughter, the Stickmen as funny to him now as the first time he'd seen them. "Well, maybe one day Uncle Andrew will finally convert them," he added sarcastically, "though the devil might have more fun with them."
"Okay, watch them, but listen to me: There might be a riot in town and mother is home breaking dishes."
"It's my fault."
"You always think things are your fault when they never have the slightest thing to do with you. That's a sin of pride if you ask me."
"I passed out pamphlets announcing the holiday changes."
"They've made the changes? What are they?"
"Christmas on the Fourth of July, starting this year."
"Not everyone is so happy about it."
"They'll get over it."
"I started this mess."
"Did you write the pamphlet?"
"The Changing of the Holidays has been coming for a while. It's just another distraction."
Arturo watched a man below tackle another, then pretend to stab him with the stick. The second man made a great show of screaming, grabbing his sides, thrashing and rolling, but there was nothing wrong with him (island historians had recorded that the game was played with stabbing until the mid-1920's, when the violence mysteriously ceased).
Suddenly Michael was staring not at the Stickmen, but to the east, at the sea.
"I'll be goddamned," Michael said.
Arturo turned to see. "Oh --"
A gray monster of metal was gliding by the island as if it had emerged from a slit in the horizon, its huge gun barrels as conspicuous as the American flags. A battleship, but why here and now? It moved silently, which seemed impossible given its size; Arturo always imagined that such an object, which appeared all the more unnatural in its dwarfing of the island, would move with the sound of a collapsing factory, creaking and scraping and shrieking, but there was nothing, not even the lapping of the waves.
"You don't still have your radio?" Arturo asked.
"Of course not."
It was the first time in many months that Arturo had missed having access to the news. All of the island's radios (with the exception of the President's, people assumed) had been turned in at the request of the President and then presumably destroyed. At first, this had depressed Arturo, but soon he came to feel lighter, almost airy, like the island itself. It was as if thousands of people had occupied his mind like invited but eventually unwanted guests, and then one day without a word packed their bags and left.
"You don't think it's coming here?" Michael asked.
"It would have turned towards us long ago. It's going somewhere else. We're not very important to America."
"I wonder where it's going?"
Arturo turned to look at the Stickmen, who had dropped their sticks and stood gaping at the battleship.
"Come to town with me," Arturo said. "Maybe things have quieted down. We have shopping to do. It's almost Christmas."
"What should we get for mother?"
"I think she could use a new set of dishes."
But later that night, Arturo and Michael walked home emptyhanded, the shops having closed early as a precaution, though things apparently had not erupted into a fullblown riot. Still, they took their time getting home; neither wanted to face Christina and both hoped she would be asleep when they arrived. For now, things were quiet, the horizon bereft of battleships, the moon full and round and yellow as a lemon.
"Strange to have two Christmases in a year," Arturo said. "I wish I were a child. But it's all crazy. I should quit now."
"That wouldn't look good, lasting only a day on your first job."
Finally they reached home. When Michael opened the door, Christina was snoring. The two brothers tiptoed through the shards of china into the bedroom they shared. They laid on their beds and stopped talking. Unable to sleep, Arturo thought of the battleship, knowing it would never engage in war over such a place as this. It had simply passed back through the slit in the sky.
The next day, Christina made the usual breakfast, setting down the dishes with force insufficient to break them but enough to signal that she remained outraged. At the same time, the room was too bright with the sun. Arturo felt as if he had someone else's hangover (he had not drank since he was 15, when at a family party he consumed -- at his brother's insistence -- so much gin that he jokingly lifted his mother's skirt).
"It's a lie," she said, refilling his glass of orange juice. "The President is a jackass."
Michael suppressed a laugh.
"And you," she said, "are a jackass to work for this so-called government. Do you guys ride around in clown cars, honking horns and spraying seltzer water in each others' faces? Because that's what I imagine when I think of your new job. At first I was proud of you, but I didn't know this is what they meant by changing the holidays. I thought they meant making new holidays. We can always use those. But not this."
She began collecting the plates and setting them in the sink. She turned the water on and the pipes whistled and now she was yelling. Michael stood and left without a word. Arturo was stranded beneath his mother's arms; with plates in both hands she gesticulated wildly. "You're quitting, right? Tell me you're going to quit now that you know their insane plan."
"How would it look if I quit? The whole island would think I can't stick to anything. I'll never work again."
"That's stupid. What if the army ordered you to charge a kindergarten? Do you think people would blame you for leaving the army? No."
"Just listen --"
"I won't listen. I won't celebrate Christmas in July. You tell your boss I won't be coming."
"You have to."
"No, I don't. I'll celebrate Christmas in December and in July I'll stay home and pray that God comes down and cuts that bastard's head off."
When Arturo arrived at work, he did not even have to go into the building to find the Director, for there was his superior, sitting outside on the ground, several empty bottles of wine at his feet. His mouth was stained with the wine. His eyes looked as though he had just been either laughing or crying but then, as he saw Arturo, he wiped his mouth clean and stood quite easily and steadily.
"Would you dispense of those bottles?" he asked Arturo, who at once tossed them in the garbage bin at the side of the building and then followed the Director inside.
"Arturo, preparations have begun for the Christmas feast at the center of town. How does this make you feel?"
"Well, I --"
"And your family will be there?"
"That's one thing I wanted to --"
"It is commanded that everyone attend, so I'll save you the trouble of explaining what I already know: Of course your family will attend. After all, how would it look if the President were to strut onto his balcony and give his usual magnificent speech to a few stragglers? We might just as well invite the Stickmen. Anyway, we've already sent couriers with invitations. They will wait until the invitations are open and read by the homeowner and then immediately collect the R.S.V.P.'s. It shouldn't take people long to decide between one choice, should it? No. And then tomorrow, tomorrow -- why, tomorrow will be Christmas, and I believe that the President has a special gift for everyone, every single one of us. That is the kind of man the President is, kind and gentle and above all generous. Yes. I would only warn you --"
At that moment three guards rushed into the room, their bloodred uniforms in startling contrast to the white walls. Two of the men gathered and bound the wrists of the Director, who did not resist, but only slumped in their arms. Meanwhile, a third guard unravelled a shoddy looking document with numerous crossed out passages. "The President proclaims Arturo Giggli -- Giuchici – the Acting Director in the -- in the Mission of the -- in the Mission of the Charging -- in the Mission of the Changing of Holidays." With that, they departed.
Arturo, standing beside a shadow of himself, looked into that shadow and decided it must contain more substance than his own body. He sat in the chair the Director had occupied the day before. He felt utterly weightless.
Papers, he now noticed, lay about the room like crashlanded birds, crumpled and stranded. The word he wanted to speak had not and could not be been invented; it would consist of all the names for God and all the curses from every language and culture combined into one guttural expression. The lack of that word could not at this moment be made up for by a simple "goddamn", and so he said nothing.
Just then his uncle, Father Andrew Giuchici, walked into the room and slapped a pamphlet on the table. "Your mother is very disappointed in you, and so am I," he said, clearly more Father than Uncle Andrew.
"You don't understand. It's all been dropped in my lap. I don't even know what's happened and now I'm the Director."
"That's outrageous. You're just a boy. You must abdicate your position immediately."
"There's no one to abdicate it to."
"Then you must contact the President and resign."
Arturo rubbed his eyes with his palms. "I don't have the means to contact the President."
"Arturo, Arturo! Ach. What is the word I want?"
Arturo leaned over and grabbed a handful of the balled up papers, then began unfolding them. "Maybe one of these has the number. My office has a telephone, though I've noticed it never rings; they simply barge in and arrest. I'm probably next."
"Well, Arturo, it would be best if you telephoned and offered to see an adjunct of the President in person, but otherwise you could send a note to the palace. That's exactly what I have done."
"Exactly what you've done?"
"Yes," Father Andrew said, "a note explaining that the church cannot participate in this so-called Christmas. Of course not. Of course it can't. I would be defrocked." He picked up the pamphlet once again, then tossed it amongst the papers on the floor. "Now I must disappear. The doors of the church are locked. Don't worry -- I have friends in the army and they will protect me. I'll send word to your brother and, if you like, you may join me. We'll be safe, at least as safe as possible under the circumstances."
As his uncle walked out the door, Arturo wished more than ever that he had a father, especially a powerful father who could do something such as step in and have a word with a few important people, a quiet, discreet word that would correct everything without the slightest conflict or trouble to anyone at all. At least that is how Arturo imagined it might have occurred. Unfortunately, his father had died during the 1925 revolution. Apparently he had gotten drunk the morning of an important battle and tripped and fell on his own bayonet.
Thus, it was necessary for Arturo to pretend he knew the sound of his father's voice and improvise a few words of advice from the grave. The voice he imagined was sometimes gruff and sometimes smooth, depending on the occasion. It's tone could be patient, demanding, cajoling or bossy. In a way, all fathers were Arturo's father, and then again none were. And so he conjured this voice and it said to him, or he made it say, "Arturo, do what you think is best."
"'Do what I think is best?'" Arturo said. "Jesus Christ, what good is that?"
But his father did not reply. He was in a bad mood today. Perhaps some ghost had poked the scar on his belly or possibly he was still hungover from the night before he died; time might stretch and bend in new ways up there. It might even be a kind of purgatory, a decades long hangover in which to atone for wasting his life in a drunken accident on the battlefield.
Well, what could he expect? His father's advice usually came in the form of wellworn phrases like, "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." His father was no poet; nor was his son.
After rifling through waste paper for another half hour, Arturo decided the only thing to do was send a note to the palace.
To the President:
Though I of course humbly appreciate my appointment as Director in the Mission of the Changing of Holidays, I cannot in honesty accept that appointment. My sheer inexperience, matched with a natural timidity, cannot allow me to properly execute my tasks. I respectfully ask that you assign a replacement as soon as possible, for my good, your good and the good of the Island Republic.
Since the couriers were already busy delivering the invitations to Christmas, Arturo hand delivered the note. It was, he realized, quite possibly more a suicide note than letter of resignation. He wondered if his uncle had unintentionally delivered his nephew into the commission of a mortal sin.
Arturo left the door to the offices unlocked; what was there to steal? After dropping the note into a guard's hand, he walked through town. Upon seeing his face, people shook their heads in disgust, crossed themselves, or snickered. The groups of couriers passing by were, curiously, empty-handed, and paid him no attention. Certainly no one saluted Arturo or offered the slightest sign of respect -- he would not have expected them to do so, and would have been embarrassed if they had, yet he could not tolerate the mocking sneers he inspired. It was as if they knew he was going to hell and felt not pity or disgust but a vicious pleasure in his fate.
Finally, like the day before, he escaped into the trees, where it was cooler, and the birds and the monkeys and the snakes gave him only cursory glances, filled not with contempt but that peculiar animal humor.
He continued along the trail that led deeper and deeper into the jungle. It was the long route to the area of the Stickmen, but he wasn't planning on going there. Actually, he had nowhere to go at the moment; certainly not home. He was stuck in the clock, feet dangling, with nothing to do but spin around the dial.
Then he saw another group of couriers coming towards him. They were talking quite loudly, almost chanting, but their voices echoed and he could not understand a word until they approached and nearly bowled him over, singing what sounded like a nursery rhyme: "We're done with this job, this job... We're done with this job, this bullshit job!"
He turned around to face their backs; they hadn't even noticed him. "Hey!" he shouted.
They stopped and looked back. "What do you want?" one of them asked.
"I'm the Director of the --"
"We know who you are. You're the Director of blasphemy and we're your drunken couriers. We don't celebrate your holidays, we invent our own. And this is Drunken Courier Day, so fuck you!"
They danced off towards town, where they would probably be arrested.
Finally, he decided to go home; he was too tired to continue walking and would simply have to bear his mother's yelling. When he arrived, however, a pair of soldiers awaited him, the first resting against the door, blocking Christina, who was banging on the other side of the door. "You let me see my son! You're not arresting him."
"I told you," the man blocking the door said, "we're not here to arrest him."
"What's going on?" Arturo asked. "Are you taking me to prison?"
"Don't be absurd," the other guard said. "The President wants to see you. We're here to escort you."
"I'll wait here," the guard at the door said. "I'll keep your mother company."
Arturo walked off with the guard, confident the tradition of respecting women would be honored -- in most cases, a woman committing any first offense short of murder was merely fined. At any rate, Michael would soon return from berating the Stickmen.
The President's quarters were spectacular, the floors covered in priceless Persian rugs, the walls filled with murals by Salvador Dali, who, it had been reported, was a distant ancestor of the President. In the many aquariums, coral creatures floated in languor. Above each doorway hung the new flag with its cracked egg. Meanwhile, through the curtains in the study and past the balcony stretched a vista of the entire town. It was on that balcony that the President had given his three previous speeches with their poetic, stirring and, as far as Arturo had been able to tell, utterly meaningless rhetoric; however, it could not be denied that stability had returned to the island, even if, in the past few days, it seemed to be dissipating.
Arturo, again impaled on the clock, had been left alone. Guards stood on the opposite side of the doors. It was another half hour before the doors swung open and the President entered the room.
He was an awkwardly poised man, but moved with such an obvious self-consciousness that there was nothing whatsoever natural about him. Undoubtedly, this explained why he appeared publicly only on the balcony, which concealed much of his body.
He wore a handlebar mustache in the manner of his relative Dali; however, the ends pointed downward. It surprised Arturo that the man was so tall, at least six feet and several inches. All of these features lent the President a cinematic quality, larger than life, as if on a screen. He wore a heavy amount of cologne, perfumed as a garden of overripe fruit. He walked past Arturo, sat in the chair behind his desk, and folded his white-gloved hands.
"Arturo... Giuchici," he said, "of the same lineage as the priest." He looked downward at his hands, wishing, Arturo guessed, to appear as if he were thinking of the most difficult things. "The priest," he repeated. "The President is a friend of the Church." He twirled the end of his mustache. "Even the great Salvador was a friend of the Church. Yet the Father makes things impossible for me at an already impossible time." He removed his gloves and dropped them on the desk. "These are impossible times and they can only be met with impossible reactions. Impossible holidays, for one, such as Christmas and the Fourth of July on the same day. These are the types of things the times require. Are they necessarily logical? No, they are not. Still, they may be more logical than logic."
The President is giving a practice speech, Arturo thought.
"The Director with whom you so briefly worked was inadequate to the task. His pamphlet was meant to delight the people, to present them with a holiday abundant as a pregnant woman. Instead, he merely riled them up, the last thing we needed. No, what we need our people to be awash in grand schemes, fireworks and erotic interludes. The birds should sing the opera as they fly overhead. Petals should drip hallucinogens and opiates. We should bathe in the light of Christmas bulbs, a blurry, nocturnal dream. But no, the Director insisted on speaking to them realistically, the way a typewriter would talk."
"Can I be honest, sir?"
"I believe the people, if my mother is any indication, found the moving of Christmas Day to be a -- well, a blasphemy."
The President stood and walked to the window. Arturo saw him now from the exact opposite perspective as the one he had on the three prior occasions. The President then turned back towards the desk and lifted a heavy chalice, turning it in his hands, studying the minute design.
"I know, Arturo, I know. It has not been explained properly. In fact, it should not have been explained at all. If the people guessed that the celebration was a joining of Christmas and the Fourth of July -- which they never would have, of course, since who would have believed we would attempt such a thing -- then so be it. However, it need never have been made manifest. Anyway, my first point was a bit more subtle than the Director was capable of understanding, for I wished to mock the United States, even if it was a secret insult. That first and foremost. Secondly, I intended to imply that we, the Island Republic, could determine when and how to celebrate the birth of our Lord. That was the second point. And the third point was the most important of all."
The President uncorked a bottle of wine, filled the chalice and drank from it, probably, Arturo surmised, toasting himself. He then offered the cup to Arturo, who shook his head.
"You see, my compatriot, the island is evolving. Hence," he motioned to the flag that hung from the balcony, "our moniker, the egg. We are in the process of being reborn, or perhaps we are reaching the adult stage in which we will no longer be led by the hand by our mother, America. We are cutting our purse strings. But doing so is dangerous. My position, though popular, is weaker than it appears.
"And so, like a magician, I must for the moment rely on sleight of hand. I am forced into trickery, to deceive the eye of the public, lest my foes oust me. Later, I will be able to reveal a true miracle, one that has nothing to do with illusion. Until then, I cannot be honest."
"The Changing of the Holidays was only a ruse?"
"Not entirely; as I said, it was meant to symbolize something mysterious, to play upon the symbols that lie at the source of our island's existence. But I admit that's secondary. At any rate, the problem now is that the plan has backfired. My couriers have quit; the church refuses to cooperate. Most troubling of all is the army, which remains more loyal to the Church, I'm afraid, than the government."
"Is this the beginning of a revolution?"
"It is even more serious, I'm afraid. Just the other day, we cut diplomatic ties with the United States. It was a purely symbolic gesture. We mean nothing to them besides a few dollars in trade. Yet they send that battleship by as a prank, a needle in my ribs. Jesus Christ that irks me!"
"And that's why radio was banned?"
"Not exactly. It was banned because when the food prices rise sharply, which will happen any day now, the radio might tell the people why. And then we're back to where we started."
"They have a right to know. This is a democracy. "
"Not any more it isn't!" the President shouted. "Now enough with explanations. What I want you do is find that goddamned uncle of yours and tell him that if he does not publicly endorse the new holiday, I will be forced to order the slaughter of the Stickmen, whose souls he's been trying to recruit for so many years. If there's anything that will keep the army on my side, it's glory easily won on the battlefield."
That night as Arturo half-slept, hoping his dreamy mind might conjure a solution, he indeed had a long and not altogether disturbing dream in which Uncle Andrew delivered a letter from God (this time the message was written on an illuminated page that sparkled like the night sky):
To the Director of Holidays:
I have received word of your struggles and thought that a few words might benefit you. First of all, I understand your reluctance to act; you are surrounded by men of very different mindsets who all believe that they, unlike you, are of clear and definite minds, capable of acting, while you remain mired in doubts and cannot decide upon a course of action.
But how to decide on what the people need? For example, capitalists tend to believe I hid stock tips in the Bible. Old ladies believe I am like that nice young man in the grocery store checkout line. Old men think I am bitter but in certain shades of sunlight I will smile and remember, remember. This is the God people wish me to be; in a way, I am all of these Fathers, and then again none.
I also understand your current predicament and, while I have nothing specific to offer, will tell you this: I am often asked why I cannot stop the world's suffering. Well, actually, I can stop the world's suffering; the problem is that for me to do so, I would first have to cause more suffering than the world has endured in all time. So you see my predicament.
When Arturo awoke from this dream, he was laughing so loud that Michael was already awake and staring at him.
"Do you know where Uncle is?" Arturo asked, still chortling.
"As a matter of fact, I do. He is down in the valley not far from the Stickmen; he felt they might be in some kind of danger."
"He must have known," Arturo said. "Come on, let's go."
"But it's not even light yet."
"All the better."
They both threw on the same clothes they had worn the night before. Michael kept asking what had been so funny, but Arturo only answered, "You wouldn't think it's funny."
When they ran out the door, Arturo noticed there were no gifts in the kitchen, as there would be if it were Christmas. Thought not surprised, he was relieved his mother had not succumbed to any pressure to celebrate. She would do exactly as she had promised, praying for the President's decapitation.
Now they ran through the jungle, which as always began to awake before most people. In the human silence one could hear so much life that it was as if all the other possible sounds of creation were playing in God's ear, and yet here were these animals and insects, opening their eyes to the faint slivers of light that appeared above through the umbrella of trees. The millions of invisible, microscopic lives too, knew nothing of the island's unnatural human drama. They had no President. They did not vote.
By the time Arturo and Michael approached the land of the Stickmen, fog was rolling from the mouth of the valley. They followed the trail to the ridge and now, for the first time, continued down the hillside, past where the trail ended. They darted between trees and the slope increased to such an incline that Arturo almost lost his balance. Gravity pulled them both towards the bottom until they stumbled onto the flat land. The fog had thinned and they could see further, all the way to the circle of Stickmen, who were surrounded by several hundred soldiers.
Arturo walked ahead of Michael and approached the backs of the soldiers, who slowly turned to look at him with expressions of disregard. He weaved between the men. Though some muttered mild protests, they seemed aware of his status as a government official and let him pass towards the center.
Suddenly, some of the soldiers in front began shouting, "Don't do it!" Arturo could hear the pained grunts of someone ahead. As he pushed aside the last few rows, weaving between the ribbons of soldiers, he found himself amongst the band of Stickmen, who parted not out of fear but the inability to see above the taller Arturo.
Now he saw what the others were watching: A lone Stickman held the blade of a stick against his uncle's neck, a trace of blood visible just above the Adam's apple. Arturo could not believe this Stickman was so close to violence after all these years, especially against the priest, who had learned their language and was the only outsider ever to offer assistance.
"Stay back," his uncle whispered as Arturo approached. "He thinks he's the devil. He said -- he says what an interesting character I've been telling him about, this devil. Now he wants to play act the part."
The Stickman's hand was steady with the knife, but his eyes were fearful. He looked back and forth across the lines of soldiers. The other Stickmen stood with their backs to the army; they knew they could not possibly win. Still, there were more shouts and the soldiers were beginning to jostle about, as if ready to charge. Then, one of the men in the very first row lowered the rifle from his shoulder and in one quick thrust shoved his bayonet into the back of a Stickman, who instantly fell.
There was an awful silence then; it was as quiet as the moon. The Stickmen looked at each other; Some of the soldiers motioned not to move, while others brought their rifles down, ready to plunge into the group of Stickmen. For several seconds no one had looked at the priest, but then in a raspy voice he said, "He's letting me go," and when Arturo looked over, his uncle had already been released by his captor.
"When that soldier stabbed the Stickman, this one said --" Father Andrew cleared his throat. "-- this one said that they always do the opposite of us." He tried to laugh, but could not. He spit some blood out and then reached for Arturo's hand. "If we threaten violence, they turn to peace, and vice versa."
All of the soldiers kneeled.
Father Andrew whispered to Arturo, "Tell them I said there must be no bloodshed amongst the people, that they should remain here, and trust in the Director."
When Arturo entered the palace, there were of course no guards or couriers; all posts were empty. Winding his way through the corridors, he heard only his own footsteps. Then he entered the President's quarters.
"Where have you been?" the President asked flatly, as if his wife had just come home after an unexplained absence.
"I've been --"
The President held up his hand. "Never mind. I have prepared my words carefully this morning. While I have no army or church or people -- everyone has boycotted me -- will you at least sit amongst the invisible stars and planets and with them pretend to listen to me?"
Arturo nodded. The President stood and walked to the balcony, while Arturo followed a few feet behind.
"My friends, my people, we have finally been reborn. Fragments of eggshell lay all about us. We have emerged under our own God, in independence from the United States of America."
The words echoed through the streets. In the distance, laughter could be heard. Over the shoulder of the President, Arturo saw a few people wander into the streets. One of them was Father Andrew, who walked straight towards the balcony and stopped beneath the President, staring up at him.
Arturo's hand was on the chalice. He did not know for what he hoped; he was certain the priest could not prevent the growing mob, nor the army, which could not be far behind, from attacking the President.
"You've confused our faith in something more than you for disloyalty," Father Andrew said.
"I only meant to --"
"Your sleight of hand has fooled only you. Still," the father said, looking up at the President, "your dreams must have been quite beautiful to you."
"They were," he replied. "They certainly were the most beautiful dreams."
It seemed time, and Arturo did what he had to do with a compassionate precision. When the chalice fell out of his hand and the President tumbled backwards, Arturo could only stand in the morning light, silent. He thought for some time and said, "Yes, I see the predicament now."
Then he walked to balcony, as the people were calling the new President's name.