Authors: K.C. Frederick
The 14th Day
K. C. Frederick
Later, in all those places that weren't the homeland, people would remember that the Thirteen Days began with a thunderstorm. Lights were turned on early in the capital that afternoon; rain pelted the city. Even as coffee drinkers in smoky cafes argued about the railroad bill, their excited voices betrayed a fear that terrible things were already underway. Inside the parliament building a speaker occasionally stopped for a moment and watched lightning trace spidery lines across the domed ceiling; still, what else was there to do but to return to the deliberations about the country's railroads? On the broad avenue in front of Parliament the policeman pulled his wet slicker up around his ears, the trolley conductor rang her bell more insistently than she had to, the cabby at the curb searched the radio for music
all of them were waiting for something. Gutters gurgled, water poured into the street unremittingly. Later, in other places, it was difficult not to think the storm itself had been planned by the men in gray uniforms
As distant thunder punctuated the debates about transportation policy, whispering aides gave legislators the latest news from the North, where a paratroop unit had refused to carry out its orders. In the back rooms of the legislative building, plans were hastily devised to send a group of lawmakers to negotiate with the rebellious troops. By now, hardly anyone believed that reason could prevent the calamity so many had dreaded for so long; still, a half dozen representatives agreed to pursue this unpromising mission
In the region of the Deep Lakes, young birches bent under the wind that roughened waters famous for pike and bass. Men in outdoor gear looked gloomily into the rain; they passed bottles around and smoked. What they thought about as they watched raindrops make their way down window screens they kept to themselves. Some of those silent drinkers had already noticed that guns and ammunition were no longer available in the local sporting goods stores. Government workers who had left the capital for a week of fishing wondered whether they should return; others were already contemplating more distant journeys
The storm caused a power outage in the port city, but in a warehouse near the docks a generator provided light and men worked diligently, readying signs for the strike the stevedores would declare the next day in support of the rebellious troops. “We Need Order,” some of the signs read. “Purify the Nation,” others declared. “It's Time To Restore Our Glory.” Though dressed in civilian clothes, the men in the warehouse attacked their job with the discipline of a trained military unit. Elsewhere in the city, householders sat nervously at tables where candles flickered. The lights would return soon, they assured their families, once the utility company located the source of the problem. By now, though, everyone had heard the rumor that the power had been cut by the government in a desperate attempt to thwart the men in gray uniforms
A priest in a small village in the Borderlands had acquired celebrity relating his terrifying visions. God had told him the streets of the capital would be drenched in blood, a crimson river that would pour irresistibly into every corner of the land, even the village in which he preached. “Brother will turn his hand against brother, fathers will train their weapons on their children.” God had foretold these things, he related to the throngs packed into the tiny church who sang the old hymns with a despairing fervor. Can it be prevented, all of them wanted to know. When the question was asked the priest's face turned grave and he said nothing. Some left the church in a fury: this wasn't what they'd come to hear
“God will strike like a whirlwind,” the priest was quoted in the newspapers. Why do they print this kind of thing, skeptics asked. But they watched their windows too
When it happened it did come like a wind, though it was hard to find God anywhere in the sudden gusts that ripped the nation apart. Everything the priest predicted came true, and more besides, in the Thirteen Days. The woods of the Deep Lakes region rang with gunshots, but these were no hunters. On country roads the sound of a helicopter made drivers look for cover. In the port city the facades of grand old apartment buildings from the previous century were pocked with bullet holes; French windows were shattered. Armored vehicles moved ponderously down the streets of the capital. Their vibrations rattled shopwindows; the harsh clanking of the treads could be heard even in the recesses of the old cathedral. The word “traitors” was painted on the walls of churches and schools throughout the land; everywhere there were slogans calling for the death of those who were named as the enemy. People who received phone calls from friends or relatives would suddenly turn careful about what they were saying, since arguments that had been conducted over kitchen tables were now being fought with automatic weapons. Ordinary citizens saw and did things in those thirteen days they hadn't imagined possible
All of this had been coming for some time, whether or not anyone chose to acknowledge it; and long before the first of it happened, countless people had been jolted awake from prophetic nightmares. Nobody could have been surprised when those days finally arrived and for some, the beginning of the fighting brought a sense of relief that uncertainties were over at last. Still, the succession of shocks was unrelenting: there was the bomb that went off in the market square in the port city, killing nuns and children there for an outing; when the universities were shut down, the television news showed a group of professors in academic robes being led down Gothic corridors in handcuffs; everyone read about the mayor in the Borderlands who leapt to his death rather than wait to be arrested. They heard the stories about the noted judge who fled the country disguised as a woman. And there was the unforgettable picture of the soccer stadium where the national team had once been cheered, now become the country's largest prison. With each new report those who had to listen felt they'd endured one more unthinkable outrage, and still they woke up the next morning. Surely it would have to end. Yet how many of them could have guessed that they might actually survive all these things and much more, only to find they could no longer live there, that they would have to spend the rest of their lives in other places, remembering what they always referred to as the homeland?
Is that the man? Vaniok is ready to duck behind the row of boxes nearby and watch without being seen, but he checks himself. After all, he's not a fugitive, he's not back there. Still, even after three years certain habits die hard. When he realizes his fists are clenched he lets them go loose, stands there a moment, feels the blood move through his fingers. Calmer now, he steps forward, looks down the corridor: the person who's just come into the warehouse is some university official he's seen before. Vaniok is relieved. Of course, the other man will be here soon enough.
Vaniok already has a grievance against the new arrival from the homeland whose name he knows to be Jory. What else but the prospect of his coming could have caused the restless night he spent, the dream from which he lurched awake? He knows he can't blame the man for that, though, he isn't going to let himself jump to conclusions. Who knows? The newcomer might be a big-shouldered guy who laughs easily and has a story for every occasion, jokes that make the work day go by faster, somebody who'll understand the black moods that can overtake Vaniok in spite of all his efforts to be cheerful, someone who'll listenâbetter still, someone who'll nod sympathetically without Vaniok's having to say anything. It's possible he and the man will get to be good friends and one day Vaniok will tell him over a beer about the dream, the terror, and they'll laugh about it. “I don't want you bringing me any more dreams like that,” he'll say in the language of the host country and this Jory will answer, “O.K., sure thing. No problem.”
At the loading dock, Vaniok breathes in the familiar scent of wood and dust, the aroma of freshly made coffee. A forklift whines nearby, moving down the corridors of stacked boxes. Somewhere among the ducts and vents high above him a pigeon beats its wings, then falls silent. Vaniok looks into the bright square of green before him: a few trees, unruly grass bordering the railroad tracks, backyards glimpsed through fencesâthere's nothing out of the ordinary; but the sweet, sharp smell of some growing thing carries a haunting excitement and all at once he's alert, as if someone has asked him a question. Without knowing what that question could be, he's suddenly happy. Damn this stranger, Vaniok is happy. He wishes his cousin Ila were here. Maybe he'll see her after work, he'll tell her about the dream. He can imagine her listening attentively, nodding, her green eyes full of understanding. “Vaniok,” she'll say, “that's all over. That's past. We're here now.” He reaches out to the steel column nearby and puts his hand against it, resting his open palm on its smooth, cool surface. Yes, he tells himself, this is the real world. And it's big enough to accommodate this other man. He realizes he's humming something cheerful.
He's still humming a few minutes later when Royall, his supervisor, calls out, “Say, Van, I've got somebody here you should meet.”
The man walking a step behind Royall doesn't look like any of the imagined versions Vaniok has conjured. Jory must be near thirty, two or three years older than Vaniok. He's tall and thin, with a wide brow and a long, straight nose. There's a watchfulness to his eyes and mouthâhe has an indoor face; though he's wearing ordinary work clothes somehow his outfit looks formal. Noting the crease in his pants, Vaniok thinks with satisfaction that this will soon be gone, and he recognizes that in spite of all his efforts to be fair his first impression isn't favorable. Once again he reminds himself he can't blame the man for his dream. Vaniok extends his hand. “Hi,” he says, using the language of the host country.
The stranger's hand comes toward him slowly, as though he had to decide whether he wanted to respond or not, and he answers in the language of the homeland. Vaniok is aware of Royall standing there. He knows the native workers don't like to feel excluded and suggests to his countryman that they speak in the other tongue.
“Certainly,” Jory says, “I understand.” His wintry blue eyes narrow, as if he's joining Vaniok in some kind of conspiracy and their use of the host country's language is a subversive gesture. All at once Vaniok is curious about what secrets this man harbors. All of them have secrets.
“Welcome,” Vaniok says, “I'm sure you'll like it here.” Under the other man's watchful gaze the words of the host country's language feel strange and unwieldy.
“I'll let you two guys talk about old times for a while,” Royall says. “But you let him know we expect people to work.”
“Sure thing,” Vaniok says. “No problem.”
When Royall is gone the two men face each other silently and all at once the encounter has the uneasy feel of a chance meeting in the homeland during the Thirteen Days. Vaniok reminds himself that this man isn't the enemy, the troubles of their country are irrelevant here. He welcomes Jory again, this time in their language. The other man responds with the crisp consonants and flat vowels of the capital area, imitated by schoolteachers throughout the homeland, and Vaniok can't help feeling disappointed. Why couldn't Jory have come from the Deep Lakes, like himself and Ila? Still, even as the man talks about the cold country to the north, his last place of exile before coming here, the rich flow of the old language calls up images from the land they both know: ancient towns with narrow streets, long deep lakes and forests of white-barked trees where witches were said to live, all so vividly present that Vaniok and this stranger might have been transported into a waking dream. When Jory stops speaking he looks away, as if he's seeing the same scenes. “We'll both be home one day soon,” he says.