Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
THIRTY CAPTIVES HAVE BEEN TAKEN FROM A VILLAGE. THE BANDITS QUESTION THEM TWO AT A TIME TO FIND OUT IF ANY ARE RIGHT TO BECOME BANDITS.
If I remember correctly, they brought us into a little room and made us sit. There were thirty of us there. They’d taken us up into the mountains (where else?) and there in the mountains they had a little camp with some buildings and a barbed-wire fence. I believe I saw one or two dogs, hungry looking.
They called two of us at a time into the next room and asked us questions. No one knew what was going on, why we had been taken, or what we could accomplish by answering their questions. In fact, these abductions had been going on for years. Our families were all spotted with absences. I had lost two sons, and possibly a husband. The husband may have been taken. Or maybe he just went somewhere else coincidentally. Coincidence is such a funny thing, isn’t it? You could say coincidence is the word we give for when understanding breaks down. It’s like the word worms have for when the end of the hole you’re squirming through opens into nothing. At that point you just back it up.
Some of us were nervous. Others didn’t seem to care. Or maybe they did. Maybe they were relieved to finally be taken. It’s better to be taken, all things considered, than to be left behind. Everyone knows that. So we were finally taken. So be it. To be a captive is a kind of effortlessness; finally one is allowed to resign oneself without puritanical judgment. Someone told me among the Iroquois they didn’t make a fuss about being tortured. They expected it. Well—they expected either to be tortured or to be adopted. If you got adopted you got a new family, new clothes, weapons, a new name. If you got tortured to death, then, I guess, the whole thing starts over from scratch. More things we don’t know.
The little horn sounded and I was next. Me and a man named Bacrot. He lived down the street from me in town, ran a little shop selling candy, tobacco, what have you. I never liked him. You had the feeling that behind the plastic shield he was up to something. What does it do to a person to spend all the hours of the day behind a plastic shield under those fluorescent lights selling only things that are awful for people to buy? And then when the bandits come, your shield doesn’t help. They just take you anyway. They take you and your nasty little daughter, and they leave your wife and son behind. I know that’s what happened because the daughter cried the whole way in the bus. She would cry. Her father would hit her. She would cry some more. He would hit her some more.
Anyway, it was me and him. We went in.
They had a card table, and on it was some kind of monitor with a person’s face. Next to it was a camera that swiveled around. Behind the table was a chair and on the chair sat an older man, unshaven. His woolen mask had been pushed up onto his head but it kept some of its shape. So he sat there looking at you out of his head, but his head had a head on it too.
There were three lines in paint on the ground. I stood at one, Bacrot went to the next. One of the other men was standing at a third line. He was some kind of seasonal worker. I’d never met him.
Perhaps you’re wondering about fear—what my fears were. Now I know that I could be raped. Technically I could be, but it’s unlikely. I’m seventy-five years old, and have been at this thing a good long while. I know there are still some shitheads out there who might rape me, but you can tell which ones those are, and they are few and far between. The thing I was worried about, the thing a lot of us older people are worried about these days, is just having someone hold you down and put a pillow on your mouth. We all hate the idea of this, especially the pillow aspect. That’s because pillows are nice. Everyone likes them. So the fucker who decides to end you gets to feel like he’s doing you a little bit of a favor, in the midst of killing you, by exposing you to something nice, this nice pillow, isn’t he being nice, things like that. I felt like maybe we get up into the mountains and then bam, someone’s walking toward me with a pillow.
Now Bacrot on the other hand, he’s sort of a fleshy fellow. Round everywhere in a pleasing way, like a toddler. If I were him, I’d be petrified that they’d chain me to some of the plumbing in a kind of no-pants scenario.
Well we’re standing there kind of standing straight, as straight as we can, and the man says, Why didn’t you leave the town after the first abductions?
Bacrot looked at me. I looked at the interrogator. The interrogator looked at the seasonal worker, who looked at the floor. The noise of static. We all looked at the monitor. The face on the monitor was impassive. The mouth moved.
The one with the little tufts on his face. See what he has to say.
The interrogator pointed what he was holding at Bacrot and raised his chin—kind of a it’s-your-turn sort of thing. What he was holding was a pen. He was writing some notes down, I guess, here and there.
Bacrot: My business is in the town. I couldn’t very well leave.
Interrogator: Not though your life depended upon it?
Bacrot: Things are dangerous everywhere. What would leaving accomplish?
Interrogator: In fact, it’s just not true. There are places, I don’t know whether you can imagine such a place, but places where bandits do not capture people and take them away into the mountains. You could have gone there. But you did not.
At that point, I broke in:
Sir, I said, there’s no consensus on what makes a good life. As for me and my shithead husband, god rest his soul, we stayed on because the abductions make sense. Of course there would be bandits in the hills, in the mountains. Of course they would come and take captives. Why would you want to go somewhere to avoid these things when being taken captive could possibly be the principle reason for having been born in the first place?
The woman’s face in the monitor nodded. Protocol three, she said.
Two bandits came up from some cranny and they made Bacrot sit on the ground. I noticed at that point that the people they’d brought in before were sitting in two groups along the wall. One group had about five people, they all looked rather cheerful, the other maybe six, all downcast. Bacrot was the seventh. They shoved him to the ground and he fell hard on his side. For some reason all the people on the floor weren’t making any noise. They were just completely quiet, staring up at us.
You, said the interrogator. Can you guess why they’re sitting in two different groups? He lit a cigarette triumphantly, as if he’d asked the no.1 interrogator question of the decade.
He was talking to me, but I held back. Maybe if the guy next to me answers by accident, and he’s wrong, he gets penalized and I avoid the whole thing. But the man next to me didn’t say anything. He was smart. He just looked at me, like, go on.
So I looked at the people on the ground. Two of them were from my street, a boy and a man, kind of a honcho at the local plant. They were in the pushed-to-the-ground group. The others seemed to have a little bit better situation. They were by a window and some of them were sitting on cushions. One of them had a pretzel rod.
Why are they in two different groups? Speak up.
You all come and take people. Some of the people are gone forever, but some of them come back. The ones who come back always say they got away. It’s the same story, the bus stopped for one reason or another, and they jumped out and made off, and got away. We don’t really believe them when they say this, but what are you going to do?
And so—I’d guess the people by the window get to go home. They’re your plants. You plant them back where they were for future use. They know enough not to talk. Then the others, I pointed to the shoved-down group, they get taken out behind the barn, am I right?
The face on the monitor broke into a smile. Protocol five, she said.
The bandits took the seasonal worker and had him go to the cushion group. He sat down with an expression of relief and confusion.
Please move to that line.
I moved to the line the seasonal worker had stood at.
Bring in the next two.
The next two came in. One was Alonzo, a drunk who used to be some kind of policeman until they discovered he had a heart defect. I don’t know why you can’t be a policeman with a heart defect. Seems like it could be an advantage. The other one was a lady named Joan. Her face was a bit bruised up from trying to get away. I used to see her working at the daycare when my son’s kid was in preschool. I even think maybe my son was having an affair with her because she had a bizarre kind of touchy way with my grandson but not with the other children. Like she was exerting her property rights over him.
She stood next to me, and Alonzo on the other line.
Seven five two, said the monitor.
The interrogator stood up. He pointed his pen at Alonzo.
Give a brief history of your movements in the last thirty-six hours.
I, uh, I, thirty-six, that would be, I was in the plaza waiting for a friend for an hour and he didn’t show up, that was Tuesday, I guess. Then I went to Ricardo’s to get some lunch.
Stop. Your oldest son is a policeman?
He is, he is. Followed his father in the profession. But that’s two hundred miles from here.
Is this him?
The interrogator handed a small photograph to one of the bandits who brought it over for Alonzo to look at. The photograph was of a headless kneeling body and also of a head that was on the ground next to the body. Something of the photograph evoked the swiftness with which it must have been taken before the body gave up kneeling and laid down.
Alonzo let out an odd little cry.
This is your son?
I don’t know.
He was making weird wet breathing sounds and covering his face.
That looks like him to me, said Joan. I was in school with him. He had that hair thing, you see it here, that hair thing. What is it called?
Widow’s peak, I interjected.
Joan smiled at me, a good bright smile that said, yeah, I know you and you know me. That’s right, a widow’s peak. I bet it’s him.
It’s him, said Alonzo.
In that case, said the interrogator, and he made a little shoulder movement. The bandits took Alonzo to the lowly group and pushed him to the ground where he lay quietly sobbing.
Young woman, said the interrogator. What can you do?
Joan seemed glad to finally get some of the attention that she’d been longing for all her life.
I am an adequate cook. That is, I can cook things from things and people don’t complain. I don’t need expensive ingredients or anything. I can do handiwork around the house like a man, you know, hammers, drills. I’m no good at math, but I can write a good letter, very well organized, get the point across. I am easy to get along with, everyone says so. I took a marksmanship class in high school, so I can shoot a pistol.
The interrogator nodded. To everyone this seemed like a pretty good result for her twenty-five years on the planet. I began to think I had underestimated her. She was certainly better than the woman my son had married, a twit who had died of pneumonia last year during the summer.
What about you, they asked me, what can you do?
I laughed. What can I do? If it’s a problem to look at, I said, the problem is, what goes in and what goes out, right? I am a fleshy machine that goes about rather slowly on two legs. It looks out of eyes and listens out of ears. It compares that data to a life’s data of close observation and determines in any case whether the results are unusual or usual. Furthermore, it assigns a value of desirability to the direction in which events seem to be going, and then attempts to intervene if the value found is low. For the operation of this machine, the cost is almost nothing. I eat a piece of bread and a little bit of soup each day. That’s it. I don’t drink. I am not violent. I understand the use of violence, though. For instance, I would put all these shitheads out of their misery immediately. Here I gestured to the second group of captives on the ground. I don’t require much sleep—about five hours a night, and I don’t have respect for much of anything.
The face on the monitor was broadly smiling.
Protocol five, it said.
Joan was taken to the area with cushions, where she sat.
The room was quiet.
Bring in the next two.
The little horn sounded in the next room. Two more of the captives came into the room.
The first was an old friend of mine, a man named Maurice. He had been my doctor for many years until he became senile. At that point, he remained my friend, but not my physician. Nonetheless, he was still practicing medicine. I gave him a thumbs up. He took his place at the line.
The second was a boy, maybe ten or eleven years old. He had a baseball cap on with a little devil on it. He looked afraid. Somehow he was trying to stand on the line, but he kept fucking it up and going a little too far forward, so he was ahead of the line. Then he’d step back but a little too far and have to start over again.
Stop shuffling, said the interrogator.
I’m sorry, said the boy. But he couldn’t stop. He kept going forward and back, forward and back.
One of the bandits came up and shot the boy in the head with his pistol. The body was on the ground and the head had exploded within the baseball cap. Somehow the baseball cap was now doing what the skull had been doing before, containing the supposed sum total of the boy’s youthful mentality. Not much of it was left though, just a shudder or two.
Clean that up, said the monitor.
Everyone waited for the clean-up to take place. A bandit came with a tarp. That one took the body away. Then a bandit came with a mop and bucket. The whole thing took no time at all. Unfortunately, the mopping had messed up the line which had been drawn in some kind of water-soluble marker. It wasn’t as good of a line as it had been before. I was not alone in observing this. The interrogator whispered to a bandit next to him, and the bandit came around very elegantly and redrew the line.
Thank you, said the interrogator, when the bandit returned and replaced the marker on the table.
All right, you are the doctor.
I am, I am that, said Maurice. He was wearing a somewhat soiled sportscoat and a khaki colored bucket hat.
Please show us your hands.
Maurice held up his hands. They were shaking something awful.
You’ve seen many patients in your time?
And you’ve helped them? You’ve helped to solve their little this problem and their little that problem?
I have tried, I have.
Can you still practice?
I have a thriving practice, said Maurice. Many of the people here have been my patients. He indicated me among them with a wave of his hand. I could be of service to you here, he said. Bandits need doctors too, don’t they?
The interrogator peered at Maurice. Hold on, her?
Maurice nodded, yes, her.
You are this man’s patient?
I shook my head.
Some of the air seemed to go out of Maurice. Perhaps he saw what was coming.
Were you his patient?
I was his patient, I said, for many years. He is a dear friend of mine, a very gentle and serious man. However… I stopped.
However in recent years he lost his ability to properly judge what is happening moment to moment in his life, and now I cannot trust him to diagnose any illnesses or lack of illnesses that I might have.
Is this true? the monitor said. Its face’s blank look enveloped Maurice hopelessly.
Maurice shook his head.
This woman, this woman…this woman and I had a real estate falling out. Her husband and I co-owned a property and I bought him out and then sold the property for a lot of money. Since then she has hated me. It’s just vindictiveness, vindictiveness.
Now the attention was back on me. I smiled.
What he says about the real estate is true, but that happened twenty-five years ago. I continued to be his patient and to play cards at his house once a week (and take his money) until three years ago. This change was prompted by an event, which is that I noticed his nurses no longer heeded him and would go about their business doing what they needed to do whatever he would say. I also noticed several verbal slips and long moments of confusion. My confidence was shaken.
Protocol three, said the monitor.
The bandits took Maurice and threw him on the ground with the others. On the far side of the room Joan laughed her dirty little laugh. The interrogator slowly turned his head as if to say, no laughing.
Bring a chair, said the monitor.
A chair was brought out from god knows where and put beside the interrogator.
You may sit here, the interrogator told me. I went and sat in the chair next to him.
You are now a bandit, he said to me. Welcome.
The other bandits came up one at a time and shook my hand. I noticed then that I knew many of them, had in fact known them all my life. Some of them were the children of friends, others were old friends. Some were faces I had seen only once or twice through windows, or on trams in visits to nearby cities. We welcome you, they kept saying. They were all crying and very much in love with me, just as I was in love with them.
This will be good, said the interrogator. Now with your help we can really get down to business. We still have a dozen of these shitheads to attend to. Someone bring her a mask and a pistol. Come on. We don’t have all day.
A young woman came like a beautiful and elegant deer, as perfectly as ink leaving a pen, and knelt beside me. She laid her head in my lap and looked up at me. Dear friend, she said, for we shall be friends. In my heart I can see that we shall always know one another. Here is the pistol that you will use as a bandit, and here is your mask which is the greatest of joys. Not tomorrow and not the next day, but the day after that, we will all go down to a town on the far side of the mountain and you will ride beside me in the jeep, and if you see me shooting someone down then you can please stand beside me and shoot into that person, and if I see you shooting someone down, then I will stand beside you and shoot into that person. We will tie up some and beat others and carry them all away. Oh our beloved life and happiness!
She began to cry.
I didn’t want her to go. I just sat there, stroking her lovely hair, petting her and petting her, as the captives came before us with their ugly and filthy faces. Their pitiable lives were fastened to them like handcuffs. I could hardly believe, sitting there in the world’s shimmering glow, that I had ever lived among them.
We released the ones who were to be let go, and watched as they ran off down the mountain, sometimes falling, sometimes standing, sometimes tumbling. Off they went into the distance and were gone. The others, who lay still where they had been pushed, were shown into a large cistern which was then shut. They put up no resistance to this turn in their lives, just as they had put up no resistance to all previous turns. It could be in their hearts they had asked for an end to things. Not everyone wants the world to go on.
So we turned away from the door and stood in the light from the open door. I could see the interrogator there like a hundred fathers and mothers.
Put on your mask, he said. See how it feels.
Jesse Ball is the author of fifteen books. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. His new novel The Divers’ Game was just published by Ecco.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.