By Gavin J. Grant.
There are some hundreds of us. One of us, we are mostly men, said: Surely we came in twos from our hometowns, from our home states, and there can’t be more than one hundred of us? But the rest of us talked over him, talked him down. Even the oldest and woolliest among us can see that there are more than a hundred of us. Although it is hard with all this furniture, these wires and this weather to come together and count up or count off. We only come together in a crisis. We can’t decide if this is a crisis. And some of us, who rarely turned up before, never turn up now.
There are five hundred and twenty scratches on the ground — we don’t trust the walls. They are either wire or old wood. The first we can notch but can’t scratch (it scratches back). The second, well, we wouldn’t dare. A small group – call it a subcommittee – is working on what the walls are made of. They want to report but can’t. All our subcommittees are stuck in the same dilemma — what day is it? We take the Holy Day off, so they dare not report just in case it’s the Holy Day. Our Holy Day, of course, not theirs. Yours.
The five hundred and twenty scratches might stand for days. Or it might stand for us. We haven’t found out who made the scratches. There are some of us who hardly speak any more. Perhaps it was one of them? Should we add a scratch for each day as it passes? Perhaps there are five hundred and twenty days in a year? Our memories say this is wrong but no one here will ever answer our questions.
We have forgotten our pasts. We have always lived in this place, this city. We are the few, the proud, the elect.
We don’t like the treatment from the uniforms. Who gave them the right? Go here. Don’t do that. Sorry, no entry. You’ll bend over and like it if I say so. That’s menstrual blood, by the way. Let’s go surfing and you’re the board. Crawl into my sleeping bag now! Hey, you, like the hoodie?
Who are these men and women? They speak loudly to each other and very few speak our language. We try and simplify our speeches but it has been years since we cared if anyone understood us and now we can’t get through to them.
The uniforms are always tempting us: the twitch of clothing to hint at availability; the moue at the end of the sentence; the way a pencil, a cane, is twirled.
Some of us knew each other before. We’d golfed together in far away places. Or maybe not golfed, but certainly met in hotels and strip clubs and paid dancers to wiggle and jiggle while we hatched our plots. We look at one another and jiggle — even though we are bony, bony, bony — and we remember those good old days and the deals and ideals we swapped. We never talk of those things now because it’s not as if we don’t know that when no one is listening this hard, someone must be. Yes. Someone out there must be listening.
There’s a small group, between seven and fifteen of us, who say they’re from Asia. Or at least China. That’s silly, someone else said. Just because you’re funded by the Chinese, you buy goods made by slaves in China, and you discount shop your country’s jobs away; none of that makes you Chinese.
They would fight us for that. They have their own group, their own space, but their offices — their cages — are in amongst ours and they won’t dare make trouble. We think they know we have to be strong together.
We try to be strong but we do not always manage. Attendance is very important to the uniforms. We have to be strong to represent those at home. If today one of us has a cough, or tomorrow one of us is peeing blood, or the next day another of us walks only with support – if, well, then. We were never strong at logic, at what you might call “follow-through”. Perhaps it is our anomalous situation, but we are stuck in the eternal present and find the future not just unknowable but simply unimaginable. The past we leave to the uniforms who will tell us what we did, where, with whom.
Some of us are old and a little wooly. Not in the facial regions. That might have been popular at home but the uniforms don’t like it so most of us go without. No handlebar mustaches here! Any more.
You might think we’d get cold in winter without our beards but we’re a hardy bunch. None of us got here by being weak. Perhaps one or two of us relied on a hand up. A father in the right place for the right number of years. But most of us are here because we were working on something we believed in. Or we were paid the right amount, which amounts to a belief in something.
We don’t talk about belief unless we can’t avoid it. I have a personal faith, is the best response. Of course sometimes the questioners get a little more specific and pile on the pressure so you have to give them something more. Then we repeat one of our leader’s sayings, such as: “I believe God did create the world. And I think we’re finding out more and more and more as to how it actually happened.” Or we say that nearly all of us believe in God and most practice their faith. Sometimes this is enough and it quiets the hounds. Sometimes it just makes them crazy and they flock to us and wave things in our faces and shine bright lights and try to make us tell them more. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.
We wake to the sound of whistles. We wake to the sound of low-flying planes. Those aren’t allowed, you know. We know. But they stopped listening to us long ago.
Every morning we wake and are told we eat well. Some of us are overweight (even if perhaps we don’t look it) so they are dieting. None of us are on hunger strike. Therefore none of us are being force fed without sedatives or anaesthetic. And of course no feeding tubes are being stuck up noses and down throats. Which means none of us are regularly vomiting blood.
We are learning new languages, or perhaps new jargons. “Eating well.” “Extraordinary rendition.” Meaning is amorphous and unreliable. “Enemy combatant.” No one here fires a gun. Occasionally a weapon is discharged. We are neither charged nor discharged.
That is untrue, too. Very occasionally there are charges levied and sometimes some of us have disappeared.
Sometimes we think the disappeared have gone home. We tend to think this after long, hard conversations with the uniforms and their friends when there is little else on earth we would like. But usually those who disappear are quickly replaced. We have an institutional memory of those who were once here.
We talk about them on those mornings we manage to walk together. But we get distracted by the uniforms. What we would do for the sight of a woman out of uniform. We admire those in uniform but never tell them so. We are aware of how this might be perceived. We know who holds the power here and that we must not abuse it.
The leader of the free world has military installations in more than one third of the countries on this planet. There are seven hundred and two military installations. There are only five hundred and twenty of us – although our numbers fluctuate. We tell one another so that we will remember: no one is counting, no one is watching.
We cannot trust our own counting. We no longer trust the number scratched into the ground. No one admits to scratching it. Some of us have experience in crowd control and say there can’t be more than five hundred of us. They are the ones who estimate our population at one hundred. We trust them because they sound convincing. Some of us insist that there are around four hundred and ninety of us now – plus or minus three per cent. We are impressed with their accuracy. Some of us remember there were more of us until some disappeared. However, it is difficult to bring us all together, so we are no closer to finding our actual number. We were getting a little obsessive over the number so now we try not to discuss it. Two hundred and sixty?
We should leave it to our counting committee. Who will never report.
Some of us are old. Whatever our present number is, it will soon change.
The uniforms say their presence here is merely decorative. They tell us there are other, more complicated defenses. They say pride in our country and anger toward our enemies will keep us on the right path and that that is all they are here to do: keep us on the right path.
We listen and spend a lot of time considering whether these things were not once considered sins. The uniforms don’t care what we do. Which tells us what we need to know about the future. Our watchers are not really watching. We begin to believe no one cares. We question whether anyone is listening. But we question with a look, not a word. There is no one out there in the vast world we used to know. No one watching.
There is a shadowy figure we call “the old man” whose pronouncements we dissect with the same fervency that those listening to us do with our mumblings. Some of us maintain they have never met him. The old man is brilliant – sharp-tongued. He has an unmistakable and unique way with language; although there are those that say he has never been properly respected or translated.
We are quite cut off from him here, but we remember his wisdom. We also remember his wounded gaze, his fury, the way he sat and stared into the distance when they interrupted him, told him about the end of the world. We all waited for him to say something — the way the uniforms now wait for us to speak. But he did not give into them. He continued to read for long, long minutes, because he was greater than even the end.
We knew he was considering his next step, his flight. It was long planned. He raised his eyes to heaven, and his people swarmed to him and took him away. Not that he was removed from the comforts of life! He is our leader. He went to the mountains, away from the blasphemous cities, to those who loved and would succor him. Oh, glorious one, we thought, how you you are, and how you are the only you and how lucky we are to have you.
Even now, forced to wake early and barely allowed to pray, stripped naked every day by the prying eyes, and surrounded by the hyenas in uniforms, we do not forget that the old man told us we were the first among millions. We were the front guard in this longest of wars that he has declared and which grants him all powers that are rightfully his. He is the one who knows what the future will be, he is the one to shape it.
But who among us has looked into a uniform’s eyes and not wanted to give the uniforms everything they want? The uniforms know so much about the old man. They keep us updated on his movements; on his latest statements and claims; on his health; on his subordinates; on what each uniform would like to do to the old man should they ever meet.
We are stoic in the face of this. We hold it within ourselves that the old man is up on the hill, away in the mountains, over the border, far away; protected from the uniforms’ prying eyes and ears.
The old man will be safe. He has an extensive family. A few – a very few – of them are embarrassed by their connection to him. His family is in oil, you know. We all know. We all nod. Oil runs our world. Without it, would we be here? We are not embarrassed by his oil connections. We used to rely on them. We still try. The uniforms are too far down the social scale. They don’t understand the broadest of our hints about our wealth. We are shamelessly, inaccessibly rich and enjoy the company of our equals. We do not get through to them.
Some of his family trade on the family name. We nod. Some of us would, too. For the most part it is too late for us to trade on anything. We have many trading committees but they are all bogged down. We have been here for years and by now, even if we cannot quite remember telling them, the uniforms surely know everything we know.
How can we trade with what we have already given away?
Some of us — no, that is an “us” that no longer exists to those of us here. We are here and they are there. Some of them (you won’t see them, it will be many years until they are visible to you) would like to act. They look exactly as you expect them to (tell us, what do they look like?), but they are the juniors, the second line, some of them were our own backroom boys. They are wet behind the ears. They mark up maps and argue over territories. They go to summer camps and learn from those who we have left behind. They would like a chance to shine but they need to be told what to do. We suspect they lack initiative. They would like to fire you up. They would like you to write to us. They would like you to come and protest at our gates. They want to know you care. To know that somewhere out there is a world we — or they — are affecting.
We know what your voice counts for. In the meantime, we do what we can. We meet with one another. Our bile hardens. We pray. We see some among us disappear. We do not ask the uniforms questions. We see the echo of a jiggle in one another’s morning walk. We know that we are a historical anomaly.
This is our life.
It is very different from what we expected.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Originally from Scotland, Gavin J. Grant moved to the USA in 1991, and worked in bookshops in Los Angeles and Boston. He runs Small Beer Press and, since 1996, has (with Kelly Link) edited and published Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a twice-yearly small press zine. His stories can be found online at Strange Horizons, MonkeyBicycle, Scifiction and Lone Star Stories. He lives in an old farmhouse in Northampton, MA.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 25th, 2009.