The Capitalist Guidebook
by Leon A. Weinstein
- Laws of Attraction……………………………………………………..
- The Farmers’ Island………………………………………………….
- Island of the Mad Doctor…………………………………………..
- The Island of Love……………………………………………………
- The Island of Fulfillment…………………………………………..
- The Island of Honor and Justice…………………………………
- The People’s Island of Justice and Equality…………………
- Shark Island…………………………………………………………….
- The Ungrateful Pig’s Island……………………………………….
- Democracy Island…………………………………………………..
- Fish Island……………………………………………………………..
- Island of Lost Dreams……………………………………………..
- Island of Peace……………………………………………………….
- Island of Opportunity………………………………………………
- Island of Cultural Superiority…………………………………..
- Island of Fairness……………………………………………………
- Treasure Island……………………………………………………….
- Pirate Island……………………………………………………………
- Shark Island: Identification of “it”…………………………..
- Home, Sweet Home………………………………………………..
“No politico-economical system in history has ever proved its value so eloquently or has benefitted mankind so greatly as capitalism–and none has ever been attacked so savagely, viciously, and blindly. The flood of misinformation, misrepresentation, distortion, and outright falsehood about capitalism is such that the young people of today have no idea (and virtually no way of discovering any idea) of its actual nature…
The method of capitalism’s destruction rests on never letting the world discover what it is being destroyed – on never allowing it to be identified within the hearing of the young.
The purpose of this book is to identify it.”
“Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”
Acknowledgements for the 2nd Edition
On September 16, 2009, I printed five hundred copies of the first trial edition of Looking for Hugh in order to send them to all kinds of important people, get their opinion about the novel and find an agent or a publisher for the book. Searching the Web and looking through guidebooks that teach you how to find a literary agent, I created a list of two hundred fifty agencies who advertised that they’d be happy to read manuscripts by “unknown” writers. I sent out exactly two hundred fifty emails and letters offering to show my book for possible future representation. Two weeks later I received two hundred fifty refusals to read the manuscript. All were very nicely worded and all asked me to get lost in a very touching and personal way.
In researching publishers, I found about a hundred that handled books intended for my target audiences and sent them offers to publish the manuscript. I receive one and only response. It came from a publisher in the process of publishing “a book that talks about the same subject” and therefore not interested in this subject anymore.
I also sent about a hundred books to book reviewers, politicians, TV and radio hosts, and political columnists. I was much luckier with this group.
“I just finished reading ‘Looking for Hugh.’ I thought it was terrific! Not at all what I expected when I reluctantly picked it up, assuming it would be a dry-as-dust tract on the glory of capitalism,” wrote Burt Prelutsky, conservative columnist and author of the Los Angeles Times’ best-seller Conservatives Are From Mars, Liberals Are From San Francisco.
“Leon has written a book that tells a fascinating story about Capitalism in an Orwellian style,” attested Kevin McCullough, radio host and commentator.
“I think it’s altruistic and noble to try all means possible to restore American traditions of individualism, self-responsibility, and entrepreneurship. We’re on the same side,” added Herb Walberg, Chairman of the Board, The Heartland Institute.
“Seriously…and I mean this truthfully and honestly…it is a masterpiece. I had the same feeling about it that I had when I first met Winston Smith in Orwell’s classic. …I think it is a must-read for so many people today to understand what it is we in the ‘West’ are sleep-walking into. Unlike 1917 it is not the gun that brings it but gradual changes… Bravo on a wonderful piece of work!” wrote Phil Hendren of the London-based “Dizzy Thinks” political website.
“Leon Weinstein has masterfully and creatively written an adventure-fantasy which reminds me of both “Animal Farm” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Ms. Terry Gilberg, Talk Radio Host.
I want to thank all of those who encouraged me to continue with the book. Very special thanks go to my dear old friend Yasha Sklansky, of the world’s best Cinematographers (he filmed Checkpoints in St. Petersburg in 1973, a work of genius!), who came to me with a proposition to change the book’s ending and offered his help and guidance. Since I wasn’t really happy with the last chapter, I agreed and we began to work. I wrote a new version and emailed it to him. He called with his critique. I rewrote the chapter and sent it back to him. He again called with his critique. I rewrote it again and sent back to him… We did this twenty-three times. At the end he said, “You almost got it.”
Thank you, Yasha—now I understand what it is to work with a perfectionist!It is very nice to receive letters and emails with words like masterpiece, fascinating, reincarnation of George Orwell, feel of a classic, and other flattering praise. It is also very scary to be judged on this level. This is why it took Yasha and me twenty-three rewrites, compared to the original text which I rewrote (before I was told it is a “masterpiece”) only seven times.
My grandson, Nikolas, helped me with distribution. He took the book to his middle school and pretended to read it during the breaks. His peers, amazed that he chose reading over soccer, all wanted to know what was better than running with the pack. After talking to him they all wanted the book, so he sold each one a copy. He made a buck from each sale, and put the money aside toward the Apple computer of his dreams.
I want to thank all of you who wrote me letters, called me, and wished me luck with this and future projects. I will do my best. I am especially grateful to Michele Bachmann who, unlike agents and publishers, found the time to read and respond to my book and its not-so-hidden message: “In this book, you seem to have transformed economic principles into a creative form which I hope will reach a wider audience.”
I was lucky to live a truly fascinating life under different social structures. I was even luckier to escape from the Soviet Union after I came to the conclusion that socialism, in any form, leads to stagnation and degradation. I came to hate central planning, redistribution of wealth, and especially the huge, all-powerful state taking care of the small, insignificant me. I now know why socialism never works, and why capitalism works time after time — without government interference. I also understand why week people like the idea of socialism, but the reality is very different from what they envisioned.
Personally I want to be in charge of my life, make my own decisions, and be free and do what makes me happy. And I want my children and grandchildren to be as free and as happy as I am. In short, I want to live in the U.S. of A and would hate to see it “fundamentally changed.”
And so I am dedicating this book to my newly adopted homeland. God bless this wonderful country of ours! God bless America!
At the end of the year 2008 I realized sadly that the population of the country I’d emigrated to— and was so proud to be part of—had, in a moment of weakness, chosen a socialistic dream over capitalistic reality. They turned against the same capitalism that made this country the best place for human beings on the planet Earth. I hope my adopted nation will soon wake up from this nightmarish delusion and reverse its course before it is too late. It will be painful, but it is the only way out of an experiment that has failed so many times in so many countries, including the one I escaped from: the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics. If not, future generations will use this book as a practical guide for reviving what was once the envy of the entire world: the proud, strong, individualistic, arrogant, and capitalistic-to-the-core United States of America.
This book is an attempt to apply to everyday life the philosophical principles of Ayn Rand, Milton Freedman, Alan Greenspan and many other proponents of capitalism and individual freedom. My thanks go also to Antoine de Saint Exupéry for The Little Prince, Lewis Carroll for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, L. Frank Baum for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Jonathan Swift for Gulliver’s Travels. These four authors were my guiding stars in crafting Looking for Hugh.
I’ve created an adventure yarn about teenagers, although my intended readers are adults. I chose this approach because I wanted heroes who were innocent of various economic and social realities. I believe many important things can be expressed through the eyes of young people first encountering certain complicities of life. I hope readers of all ages will enjoy this book and draw their own conclusions.
But before I start telling you the story, I want to desperately exclaim:
Capitalists of the world, be proud of yourselves – please!
1. Laws of Attraction
… The kite pulled and pulled and suddenly I wasn’t standing on the sand. I was going up and up, but then Earth began to pull back and I stopped in mid-air. The wind got stronger and began to push me around. Whenever I got too close to Earth, I gulped a little bit of bubbling soda.
Hugh once told me that all winds blow toward the group of tropical islands called Thousand Islands Empire, which were also known as “the land where all winds die.” I knew that, if I followed the wind, I would end up on the islands. This is why I wasn’t panicking like I should’ve been in this situation. I was just scared, that’s it. But then the unexpected happened. The wind got stronger and stronger, the clouds were all over and moon disappeared… and suddenly my kite and I were falling in total darkness. Then the wind began to spin and twist me, and lightning came crashing out of nowhere, and I blacked out…
Let me now tell you something that I experienced firsthand – planets are like little children. They grab everything they can and hold tight, not letting go. This is called in language used by school teachers “the law of gravitation”. Planets are very much attracted to all kinds of things, and trust me, this is good. Really, really good. If they weren’t attracted, then everything on Earth including beer and soda cans, construction cranes, dirty laundry, boulders, small change, all the things we keep under our beds, lost chess pieces, and of course wireless phones, key chains, even thin people would fly away. If not for this very useful law, all kinds of things would be lost in the dark wilderness of the cosmos.
I want to tell you something not funny. If not for this law, I would be lost, and lost probably forever.
The bigger is the object, the more Earth is attracted to it. For example, you can easily pick up a piece of paper from a desk. There is some attraction, but not a lot. This is why you can make a paper airplane that will fly a bit, but sooner or later Earth will pull it down. If you try to lift your grandfather’s armchair, you will notice that it is much more difficult to pull away from the Earth, which is attracted to it much more than to a piece of paper. And now let’s try to pull away from earth something really big, like a horse or an elephant. You will see that the Earth will not let go. All this talk about equality! Ha!
Now what do you think would happened if two planets were attracted to the same object? Think as an example that you and one of your buddies are attracted to the same toy… or girl, and you both think it’s your turn to play with it. Most probably, both of you will try to pull it (or her) away from each other. Well, the same thing happens with planets. They each pull toward themselves, and the planet that has more pulling power, wins.
Let me share with you another useful piece of information: For one night of every month, the Moon has more pulling power than usual. Moon is a planet that is called Earth’s satellite. It just means that it follows Earth like a small poppy (if you are lucky to have one) would follow you wherever you go. All the dogs on Earth—especially wolves and coyotes and other wild dogs— feel this special power the Moon has on this day, and they howl through the night looking up to the skies.
The Moon pulls hardest when there are no clouds, and on a clear night the full Moon can slowly pull lightweight things away from Earth. This is what happens to all those little things that disappear, the things that your moms, dads and wives say you lost. No, no and no! You must not be reprimanded for something that is not your fault! It is the Moon that must be held responsible for the outright theft of your belongings.
But let’s say you want something to fly up to the skies and to the Moon, the first thing you have to figure out is how to attract the Moon’s attention. And here I had an advantage: my best friend Hugh. Hugh reads a lot about the cosmos and knows it all. He discovered how to make the Moon become attracted to you and pull you up. The Earth pulls back, of course, but Hugh came up with a trick.
Now, I shall explain, Hugh didn’t want to go all the way to the Moon. He just wanted to fly without using a plane or helicopter or balloon, to a place called the Thousand Islands Empire. I never heard about this Empire until I met Hugh, but he told me so much about it that I thought I knew it by heart. And one day Hugh came up with a scientific way to get there, using the pull of the Moon.
You need a kite, a very large and colorful one. A large and beautiful kite will attract the Moon’s attention. If the Moon likes the kite it will start pulling it up, and if you hold on to the kite you can be pulled up with it. Hugh tested this theory during a full Moon, but he was too heavy and the Earth easily pulled him back. He sat down to think about this problem with some sparkling water, and then suddenly the solution was obvious. Bubbles always push up. If you have enough bubbles in you, they will push you up as well. The Moon will pull the kite, and the kite will pull you, and the bubbles will help push you up. So in order to fly, you need a kite and a large bottle of sparkling soda. And a flashlight, so you won’t get lost. Hugh is a genius.
Last year Hugh didn’t feel good. The doctors told that something was wrong with his blood, something called leukemia. When he got sick he told me he wanted both of us to fly to the Thousand Islands Empire the moment he feels better. He said nothing was wrong with him, that the doctors just were making a big deal out of nothing. He said that when we get to the Thousand Islands, he’ll take one deep breath and be well cured immediately because the air there cures a thousand and one illnesses. And if the air isn’t enough, Hugh added, you just swim in the waters of the Sharks’ Island, or drink the coconut milk they have plenty of, and you’re as good as new.
Then the doctors took Hugh to a hospital. His folks told me that I could only visit him once a week. When I came, Hugh wasn’t looking good. He was tired and didn’t talk much. Before I left, he whispered that I should bring him a flashlight and a big bottle of sparking soda. I immediately knew why he wanted those things. He didn’t want to stay in the hospital any more. He was tired of the doctors and nurses and all the tests and procedures. And he decided to fly away.
The very next night I sneaked out of my bedroom and ran to the hospital. I had a flashlight and a bottle of soda with me. I knew where Hugh’s room was, and saw the window was open. I climbed to the second floor, got into his room and saw that he was sleeping. I called him by name a couple of times, but he didn’t hear me. He was lying in his bed and not moving. He was connected to all kinds of monitors and they all were blinking and the largest screen was white and empty. I heard noises in the hall, so I left the soda and the flashlight near his bed and was gone in a split second.
The next morning I overheard Mom talking to Dad about Hugh. She said that she didn’t know how to tell me he was gone. Hugh was GONE? How he did it without a kite I don’t know, but he did it. The Moon was full last night, after all; maybe Hugh had hidden a kite in his hospital room? I was a little disappointed that he didn’t leave me a note, but I understood. I was the only person who knew where he went. He didn’t want anyone except me to know.
I made the biggest kite ever and wrote HUGH in large letters across it. I made sure the line was good and strong. I got myself a new flashlight and a large bottle of soda and waited for the next full Moon. Then I went to the beach, four short blocks from my home. I slipped from the window of my bedroom on the second floor of our house and tip toed past my parents’ living room. I saw them talking about something and wished them the best. I loved them after all, but I had to find Hugh. He is my best friend and he needs my help, I thought.
It was a cloudy night, so I put the soda and the kite on the sand and lay down on my back to watch the skies. I was afraid it would rain, but in about half an hour I saw an opening in the clouds. The full Moon was looking at me and smiling. I let my kite fly and gulped the soda. I felt bubbles pushing up inside me. The kite began to pull. I’m ready to meet you at the Thousand Islands Empire, Hugh! Here I come…
2. The Farmers’ Island
When I woke up I was lying on the shore of a small island. It was about the size of three or four soccer fields, and the trees and vines grew so close to the water that there was only a narrow strip of sandy beach. First thing I saw was a huge leaf that shielded my eyes from the sun. Holding it was a boy, about my age, who sat near me on the wet sand. He was almost naked—the weather was perfect at that season—and his hair was messy and his nails were dirty, but he was smiling at me and obviously glad I was awake.
“Hey,” I said, not sure he would understand what I was saying.
“Hey,” he replied, and continued in perfect Intergalactic. “Do you know any fun games that two people can play?” I again though how smart Hugh was. We had practiced Intergalactic every day for the last two years, and now it came in very handy.
“I’m very thirsty,” I said. “Do you have anything to drink?’ The boy produced a coconut and very expertly cut off the top. The coconut juice was delicious and refreshing.
I asked him where we were. How happy I was to hear that I am on the edge of the Thousand Islands Empire! “Did you by any chance see a boy my age, flying on a kite?” I asked. He didn’t know what a kite was, he said, and he hadn’t seen anyone but me. He had been relaxing and not paying much attention to anything.
“Do you have anything to eat?” I hadn’t eaten for so long that my stomach began to hurt. “It will arrive precisely at five o’clock,” he said.
“What will arrive?”
“Food, of course,” he replied. I thought this was strange, and after questioning him for about an hour this is what I learned. His dad had left his mom when the boy was really small; just disappeared one morning and they never saw him again. After that his mom started drinking. They moved from island to island because she couldn’t hold a job for very long. Twice she was caught stealing, and the judge said that she could lose the right to keep her son. That’s when the boy decided to run away, and one day soon after that he just disappeared. After several months of wandering, he found this small island, where a family of farmers was living. Actually, he said, it was their private island and he was “trespassing.” The boy said this word with difficulty, obviously not really understanding what it meant. At first he hid himself, stealing food from here and there, but the owners of the island soon caught him.
The family consisted of a young couple with two very small children. At first they wanted to call the authorities and have the boy taken away, but after he told them his story they felt sorry for him. The farmer and his wife invited him to stay with them for the time being and the boy moved in, but he was far from comfortable. He discovered that small children make a lot of noise during the day and the night too, especially in a small farmhouse. Then he learned that he was expected to work with the farmer in the morning, and to help the farmer’s wife with her chores in the afternoon, and on top of all that to study math and grammar in the evenings. So one day he moved out and settled himself among the nearby trees. The farmer and his wife pitied the boy and decided the kindest thing to do was to provide him with food and other basic necessities, and let him do what he wanted. “Poor child,” they would say sadly, “his father walked out on him, his mother was a drunk, and he didn’t get the love he needed growing up.”
And so they came to live side by side on the island that belonged to the farmer’s family. The farmer worked hard all day in the fields, his wife helped him when she wasn’t taking care of the house and their two small children. The boy did nothing. He lay on the beach, looking at the clouds at the daytime and at the stars during nights; he climbed trees and made small boats to play with. Three times every day, rain or shine, the farmer or his wife brought food to the boy, and at precisely the same time as the very first day. The boy told me that, if I wanted, the farmer would bring me all the food I could eat.
“They bring food for you, not me,” I told him. “They don’t know me. I came to their island by accident; I wasn’t invited here. I have to introduce myself to them, ask their permission to stay, and get their help to find my way around.”
The boy didn’t agree with me. “This is my home,” he said. “I live here too and I can invite anyone I want.”
I was surprised. I always thought that you need permission to live on somebody else’s property, and that if someone gives you food and shelter you ought to repay them somehow. This boy didn’t seem the least bit grateful. He told me that if the farmers didn’t want other people on their island, they should have built a fence around it and guarded it. “They practically invited me here,” he said. “Do you see any signs saying that the owners forbid strangers to come and stay on this island? They could have kicked me out of here a long time ago, before I got used to this place. And now I am used to this place and consider it as mine as theirs.” It all was very strange to me, but my stomach hurt and I was very much looking for the five o’clock meal.
Exactly at five I saw a woman and a child coming toward us with a basket filled with food. I smiled at them, introduced myself and quickly explained my situation. The woman was very sympathetic and offered to take me to the nearest big island where the authorities could help me to find my way home.
Here the boy interfered. He said that I, his guest, would stay until I was ready and willing to leave, and that the farmers would bring food for both of us, and add drinks to my liking. I was embarrassed and tried to apologize, but the boy didn’t let me. “Go to your husband,” he ordered the woman, “and tell him to send for a doctor. My friend may be injured, and I will not let him leave unless he is completely OK.”
The woman hurried off with the child in her arms, and soon her husband arrived. He was a bit agitated; he didn’t look at me at all while he spoke to the boy. He said that it was a burden on his family to have someone living on the island and eating their food without contributing to their efforts. He said that they didn’t have enough for themselves, that they felt obligated to help him, given his situation and rough childhood, and that they simply could not feed another person. I almost died of embarrassment when the boy replied, “You have no compassion and can’t be called a human being. You think only about yourself and what’s yours.”
The farmer left, sadly shaking his head. The next morning, breakfast didn’t come at the usual time. I found and ate a couple of figs and some berries, and began making a small raft to get me to the next island. The boy paced the beach and talked to himself while I worked. I heard him say that the farmers were greedy bastards and he’d teach them thing or two. At about midnight the raft was ready but I was tired and decided to leave after a good night’s rest. The boy was still pacing when I felt asleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling that something was terribly wrong. I soon found out what: the farmer’s house was on fire! I ran to it and yelled as loud as I could. For a second I saw the farmer’s face in a window, then suddenly the burning house was filled with cries and shouts. I got to the front door just as the family stumbled out, coughing and crying. In less than half an hour the house was nothing but a pile of ashes. The farmers just stood there, holding their children, staring at what used to be their family’s nest and haven.
The boy was nowhere to be found. When we gave up the search, the farmer turned to me. “Leave us,” he said quietly. “Leave our home and our island.” I understood and returned to the beach. I was pushing my raft into the water when I heard a shout. I turned and saw the farmer’s wife holding a basket of food. She gave it to me and said, “Good luck, I wish you all the best.”
I navigated my raft past the surf and headed for the next island. Knowing I’d never see the boy or the farmer’s family again, I wondered what Hugh would say about the whole situation. He’d probably say, “This all happened because the farmers spoiled the boy rotten. They thought they were doing the right thing, but instead they made him a cripple for life.”
3. Island of the Mad Doctor
Hugh wasn’t cool at all. I’m sure all the kids at his old school called him a nerd. He was almost two years older than I, but two fingers shorter. For a couple of years his body didn’t absorb vitamins and he didn’t grow an inch. I, on the other hand, was the tallest kid in my class, and one of the coolest. I was really good at sports, and practically famous for being tardy and not doing my homework. I’d do anything to show off and be cheered by my classmates. Enter Hugh. One morning my mom said, “There’s going to be a new kid in school. I met his parents today, and I want you to show him around.”
The first time I saw Hugh I immediately decided that I wouldn’t be seen anywhere near him. But Hugh was Hugh. One of a kind. Unique. Blessed. Great. When his mom brought him over and he entered my room, he made a beeline for my trophies (I had plenty) and then silently looked me over like I was a horse he was going to buy. Then he came really close to me and quietly asked a simple question—“Wanna learn to fly?”—and my life was changed forever. And now I was desperately looking for Hugh.
I didn’t have anything to row with, so I had to use my hands. It was hard work, and the ocean played with me for several hours until I landed on a manicured island with a single bungalow on it. The building looked like a medical office, and later I learned it was, with an adjacent room where the doctor stayed at night. There was a great pier where dozens of boats and even small ships could’ve docked, but there was only one: a very new and obviously seldom used boat with red crosses painted all over it. From the pier a smooth road of several hundred feet led to the building’s main door, marked “Emergency Entrance.” The road was lined on both sides with small and large signs with displays ranging from reminders to “Brush Your Teeth” to “Guaranteed Cures for Heart Disease”.
As I tied my raft to the pier two men in white uniforms appeared from nowhere, carrying a stretcher. They ran up to me, put the stretcher on the ground and grabbed my arms and legs. Then they lifted me onto the stretcher and started tying me to it. I struggled and yelled that I wasn’t sick, just lost, but without even one word the men tightened the straps, lifted the stretcher and hurried off toward the medical building.
A woman in a blue uniform ran out of the door and held it wide open. I was rushed into a brightly lit surgery where, over my wild protests, I was taken from the stretcher to the operating table and tied down again. I saw the woman preparing surgical instruments and began to yell frantically. She didn’t even turn her head in my direction, just filled a syringe with a white liquid and placed it with the instruments. Now I was really scared.
At that moment a doctor entered the room. The way he carried himself, there was no way to think of him as less than the head of the medical facility. He had a very nice smile, and I began to have hope. Then I noticed the pair of bright red ears that poked through his neatly combed hair, their pointed tips higher than the top of his head. I would have laughed out loud if I hadn’t been strapped to an operating table.
“So, how are we doing?” he asked. When I tried to answer, he suddenly turned to the nurse and asked her the same question in the same tone of voice. She didn’t bother to answer, just picked up the syringe and moved closer to me. I responded with a hysterical yell. The doctor looked at me with a nicest smile I ever saw and said, “Don’t worry, everything will be just fine.”
“But what are you going to do?” Now I was totally scared. “Why are you preparing for surgery? Why have you tied me to the table? I’m not sick, I’m not hurt, and I am totally and perfectly OK.”
“Everyone says that.” The doctor kept smiling. “We perform the best amputations in the whole Empire . . .”
When I heard the word amputation, I began jerking my hands and legs with quadrupled effort and power, and suddenly one strap let go and my right hand was free. I grabbed the first thing I could lay my hand on—a scalpel—and yelled, “If you make one move in my direction, I’ll cut your throats!” That stopped them in their tracks.
I told the doctor to free my legs and left hand. He did it very cautiously, eyeing the scalpel I held in my right hand. The nurse disappeared. I was afraid that she went to summon those two men in white uniforms, but they didn’t come back.
“May I at least examine you, please?” the doctor pleaded. I was still afraid and was watching my back, but something told me that the danger was over. The situation now began to look like a comedy instead of the high drama it was a minute ago.
“Why?” I demanded. “Why would you want to examine a complete stranger who is not complaining of anything? Don’t you have better things to do, like treating real patients?” That’s when the doctor told me his story, which I now gladly tell you.
When he was a young man, he didn’t even think about becoming a doctor. He had always expected to become a welder, like his father, grandfather, and both his older brothers. But he had a curse: his ears! They were bright red, and pointed, and enormous. People laughed the instant they saw them. As a child he would hide for hours, too embarrassed to face his peers. And then one day his curse became a blessing. The Society for the Protection of Laughed-At Children took over his life. He began to receive free meals at school and free tickets to sporting events and concerts. He was assigned a gorilla-like bodyguard who made sure no one laughed at him. Eventually the Society pushed through the Congress a new law declaring that, from now on, all laughed-at people were to be considered a protected minority. Then the society made sure he was accepted into medical school, despite his inferior grades.
The doctor told me he didn’t want to go to medical school. He didn’t even want to go to college, but the Society made everything so easy, and the money doctors made was so much more than welders’ wages, so he decided to play along. He didn’t learn much, and every time he failed he was sure he’d be expelled. But he wasn’t. The medical school received federal grant money for each minority student, and the Society continued to exercise its growing power, so he stayed. He didn’t even complete his internship, but he still received his diploma at the official graduation ceremony. The Society sent a letter praising his accomplishment and then disappeared from his life. The doctor now felt more alone and unprotected than when he was a child.
So he went to a large hospital and applied for a job. He was rejected, despite their need for medical personnel. He went to another hospital, with the same result. He offered to join some of his colleagues in private practice, but was politely declined. He opened a small medical office by himself, but no one came in for months and months. He was going crazy, and one day decided to ask the Society for help. He made an appointment with the chairwoman, whom he had known since childhood. She again warmly told him how proud the Society was of his accomplishments, and asked what they could do for him. The doctor suggested that he become the Society’s physician. He said that since the Society had been so kind to him, he would treat their members for half of the price other doctors charged.
The chairwoman looked hard into his eyes and told him that the Society had already done everything possible to help him, but this was far beyond what they were willing to do for him. They were all being treated by physicians who had been accepted into universities because of their outstanding grades, who had studied hard and knew how to help people. In short, she said, we do not need second-rate treatment. Then she told him about a station on a deserted island, where the government had built a medical facility. The doctor accepted the position with many thanks, and went home to pack.
For the first couple of months, fisherman from nearby islands came to the doctor with small medical problems and emergencies, and he treated them as well as he could. Then horror stories about his medical skills spread until the local people refused to come anywhere near his island. But tourists and travelers came along now and then, so the doctor trained his staff to immediately trap them and bring them to his hospital. And if he was lucky, they were sedated before they knew what was going on. After each surgery the doctor would feel good for at least a week, and dream of working in a huge medical center—not as a surgeon, strangely enough, but as a simple orderly.
“Hey,” I interrupted, “My friend Hugh—he’s a year older than I am but a hundred books smarter—Hugh always says you have to prove yourself. Why don’t you find your old textbooks and study hard, and go back to your medical school and tell them to examine you one more time?”
He stiffly informed me that he was entitled to have patients because he’d been laughed at all his life. “If you had ears like mine you’d understand the pain I went through,” he added with a sigh. “I know several people like me, whose suffering you small-eared people can’t even begin to comprehend. We are talking to lawmakers and preparing a law that will make hospitals hire people with pointed ears and send them patients, too.” Suddenly he stopped, looked at me very closely and said, “The whites of your eyes are yellow. I will prescribe something for your jaundice before surgery . . . ”
That’s when I started running as fast as I could, away from the doctor and his hospital and his island. Hugh wouldn’t stay there for even a split second.
4. The Island of Love
I was again lying on my stomach on the raft, rowing with my hands, and thinking about things Hugh had told me about the Thousand Islands. The islanders had no idea of the world beyond their Empire. They thought they were the only people on Earth. If strangers ever came, such news would be reported throughout the Empire and everyone would be talking about them. I decided to go to a larger island and ask the people about a boy from the outside world.
Hugh once told me about a group of islands so close together that they looked like one big island. Hugh called this an archipelago. He said the islands of the archipelago formed a large circle, and were separated from each other by narrow streams of water. Hugh said that you could jump over the streams if you ran fast and then jumped with all your might. He added that, if you started on one island and kept going from one to the next, you’d end up right back where you started.
Hugh told me that everything was the same on those islands: same trees, same birds, same sunrise and sunset. Even the people were the same; one brother lived on one island, another on the second, mom and dad on the third. But things were very different on each of them. “Archipelago,” I told myself, “I have to find the archipelago.”
Sometimes you are just darn lucky. I stood up to look ahead, and then sat straight down on the raft again. Unbelievable, but true: I was headed straight for the archipelago.
Meeting the King
The very first island in the archipelago that I set foot on was ruled by a King. His portraits were everywhere. Over the entrance to the wide road leading from the marina to a majestic palace, there was a sign with a quote from the king’s grandfather: “I SAY, YOU OBEY!” On each side of this royal wisdom stood a huge iron figure of a soldier with a sword in his hand. “Obey or else,” I thought.
All around were fields of grain and vegetables, and I saw peasants working in the fields. As I walked along the road, the nearby peasants dropped whatever they were doing and ran to line up on both sides of the sides of the road ahead of me. Each carried a musical instrument, which they apparently kept handy, and the first peasant to arrive immediately began to play. The others joined him and soon a whole orchestra lined the road, playing what sounded like a field march. I assumed it was the country’s hymn or national anthem.
Moments later the doors of the palace opened and several men in fine garments came out and stood waiting on the stairs. I felt a bit strange thinking that they probably mistook me for someone else, obviously very important. I rushed toward the palace and the orchestra played much faster. I slowed down. They slowed too. I moved faster, they followed. I began to dance, they began to play and dance as well. I stopped, they stopped. All this time the men on the stairs stood motionless, waiting. When I came to the bottom of the stairs, a tall, white-bearded man with a staff in his hand stepped forward and bowed.
I bowed back. He bowed lower. I bowed even lower. He bowed lower still. I tried to bow lower than he but couldn’t, and then I caught a glimpse of satisfaction on his face. “I welcome you, stranger, to the best island of the Archipelago!” he said in a deep voice. “I am the Prime Minister, and I represent the best and most compassionate King alive. By His Majesty’s orders, your status is that of an esteemed guest of the King. Enter and enjoy!” I bowed again and stepped through the massive doors into the palace.
WOW! This was a great place to be. I never saw so much gold and silver, so many masterful paintings, vases and sculptures. Even in museums in the Old World, where my parents took me quite often, I never saw so many riches. I looked around in astonishment, not believing my eyes.
Suddenly a horn blared out very close to us, the inner door opened, and the King appeared with a group of wonderfully dressed people. The King was tall and handsome, with long dark hair and blue eyes, and looked every inch a king. I never saw anyone quite like him. “Did you see?” he asked grandly, with a large smile and a sweeping gesture around the throne room. “Have you ever seen such riches in one place? This vase is from China’s T’ang Dynasty, and this urn was found in a Greek ship that was sunk during the raid of Athens.”
It was really amazing, how such a small nation could assemble such a collection of world treasures! I immediately felt admiration for this progressive and educated monarch. “Wow!” was all I could say.
The King turned to the white-bearded man with the staff, his face cold as steel. “Prime Minister, why was our guest not informed on how to properly address us?” he demanded.
White-beard shrank to half his size. “Your Majesty, we, we were about to explain the protocol, but, but Your Majesty came unexpectedly early,” he stammered, and began trembling.
The King stared at him in dismay, shaking his head. “Take him away,” he said with a royal wave of his hand, then turned to me again with a smile. “After all, one must never forget that we are the King.”
Two soldiers in red-and-white uniforms burst into the room, seized the poor Prime Minister, and tore the staff from his hands. Then, to my astonishment, they stripped him of his beard, apparently held in place by a rubber band. The King turned and pointed to the man closest to him, one with a round face who stood looking at the floor. “You,” he said, “What’s-your-face, take the staff.” Round-face immediately jumped about three feet in the air, grabbed the staff, somehow arranged the white beard on his round face very quickly, and ran to kiss the King’s hand. On the way he kicked White-beard in the leg. After the kiss Round-face began to back out of the room, motioning the others to leave us alone with the King. All followed his lead, moving backwards and bowing as low as they could, until I alone stood before the King’s throne.
“Now you may relax,” said the King kindly. “We do not require protocol when we are alone. But we must say, you are very lucky. Well now, today we will watch the fireworks. We have a small fireworks exhibition every day, but once a week we have a fireworks extravaganza, and today is the day. After that you are excused until our servants will undress us . . .”
“Excuse me, Your Majesty”—I already learned how to properly address kings—“but you said ‘undress us,’ right? Does that mean there are more kings in this palace?”
The King laughed out loud before he explained that kings call themselves “we” and “us” to make people honor them even more. I personally thought the whole idea was ridiculous, but decided not to comment.
“Now,” said the King earnestly, “we like you, and we wish to bestow upon you a great favor. We hereby grant you our royal permission to sit in the Royal Presence with your hat upon your head. What say you?”
“I am very, very flattered, Your Majesty” I said, sinking into a very elegant and very comfortable armchair, “but I cannot wear a hat in Your Majesty’s presence, since I have no hat.” The King immediately swept his royal and magnificent hat from his head and graciously handed it to me. “Now,” he said majestically, “now you have a hat, and you may wear it in our Royal Presence.” I put the hat on.
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” I said again, “but I am looking for a friend of mine. His name is Hugh. Has anyone by that name come to your island?”
“Kings do not have friends,” he said flatly, “only subjects.”
At that moment bells began to ring and people wearing many different uniforms rushed into the room and began arranging chairs and desks in a semicircle facing the throne. From another door several people in chains were led into the throne room. The King already wore another no-less- magnificent hat on his head, and I realized that the royal court was being prepared so that people to try their cases before the King. I didn’t want to interfere, so I began to wander through the palace. Several servants noticed my hat and tried to fall to their knees or flat on their stomachs, but on seeing my face they returned to their duties. No one else paid any attention to me.
In the other chambers I saw many more riches: exquisite paintings and tapestries, furniture made of rare woods and inlaid with jewels, and many ancient sculptures. From a window I glimpsed a beautiful garden filled with many exotic trees and flowers, and went outside to enjoy it. I strolled around the garden, savoring the wonderful smells and gorgeous colors and sweet birdsong, until I hit a wall about a hundred feet from the palace. The wall was expertly painted with exotic fruit trees and flowers and flying birds, all unbelievably lifelike, but it was still a wall. I leaned against it and found it was made of cardboard covered with paper. I kept moving along and poking my finger at it, and either I poked harder or the paper was thinner, because I made a hole in the wall.
I quickly looked around but saw no one, and peered into the hole. What was outside the wall was just the opposite of what was inside. The only color outside was the color of dirt. Everywhere I looked were all the signs of terrible poverty: dirt roads, rundown houses, yards filled with trash and weeds and dead trees. I saw people who looked tired and miserable, dogs and cats that looked starved, and crying children with thin faces and bright feverish eyes . . . .
I heard a slight cough and turned to see the new Prime Minister standing behind me. “Excuse me,” Round-face said, “but it is not advisable to look outside.”
“Uh-huh,” I answered. We looked at each other for some time in total silence. Then he said, “This is the best island in the Archipelago. There is no better place than the Island of Love!”
“Island of Love?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he answered proudly. “Our island is called the Island of Love because we love our King, even more than we loved his beloved father or his beloved grandfather. He is the most loved King on Earth. Our love for him has no limits. No other island can compare to ours, not the Island of Fulfillment, the Island of Honor, the People’s Island of Justice and Equality, and especially not Shark Island, the worst place of all. May heaven forbid that you set foot on that disgusting island! People say you get bad disease even if you just come near the borders of that absolutely despicable place . . . but now we must return to the palace immediately, for His Majesty has summoned you.”
A Little Misunderstanding
The royal court was still in session when Round-face and I entered the throne room, but the King seemed very glad to see me and ignored everything else. He looked directly at me and spoke loudly. “Honored guest, we forgot to tell you something very important. You should know that we are the most educated monarch in the history of the world. We have earned two PhD’s and three MD’s, and we are an academician of many academies.” He was quite pleased with his announcement.
The court procedures didn’t stop even for one moment. I overheard the prosecutor say, “This despicable person almost blinded His Majesty! This totally inexcusable act of treason shall be punished by death!” Murmurs arose all over the throne room. The accused man stood pale and trembling, his head down. “What they are talking about?” I asked the Prime Minister.
“Island law states that, when His Majesty is passing by, every peasant shall fall to the ground, head down. But our greatest and most humane King wants his subjects to see and admire His Majesty. This really difficult problem was resolved when His Majesty came up with a most unusual and efficient idea, which will prevent such royal problems for generations! Each and every subject must always carry a small mirror. When His Majesty approaches, the people are to fall to the ground with their heads down as before, but use their mirrors to admire His Majesty and the royal entourage. Now this scum of a man laid down, took out his mirror, and the sun’s reflection from it blinded the King.”
The court was now silent, watching the King who seemed to be deep in thought. Then he looked at the accused. “We ordered everyone to be happy, didn’t we?” he demanded. “Are you happy?”
The man looked at the King and immediately back at the floor. “Yes, Your Majesty” he replied in a thin, tired voice, “I am happy.”
“Good!” the King stated. “You almost killed us, you know? If we had been on horseback, we might have fallen and broken a Royal bone. This crime is indeed punishable by death. But, we are a very sensitive and just King (everyone in the hall began to clap and shout, “Hooray for the King! Hooray!!”) and we will not send you to die on the gallows or rot in the Royal Dungeon (more clapping and cheering), but this terrible deed shall not go left unpunished. You will pay the Crown . . .”
At that moment a courtier appeared and bent to whisper into the royal ear. The King looked at the accused, and then said, “Nothing?” “Absolutely nothing,” said the man, and blended back into the royal entourage. “In that case we will hang you,” said the King, and waved his hand to close the case.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said the prisoner.
And suddenly I heard myself say, “But he is guilty of nothing!” Everything stopped. King, court, soldiers, even the poor man who was about to lose his life were all gaping at me in total disbelief.
I was a bit scared, but thinking that Hugh would do the same, I continued. “He was told to lie down when he sees the King. He did it. He was told to take out his mirror. He did it. He was told to try to see the His Majesty in his mirror. He did it. He is not to blame because his mirror reflected the sunlight into Your Majesty’s eyes.”
Everybody was afraid to move or even breathe. “And who you think is to blame?” roared the King. “Perhaps you would blame us?” Before I could answer the King ordered, “Hang him too!” and swept out of the throne room. The soldiers escorted the mirror man and me to the dungeon and locked the door behind us. Last thing I heard was that the gallows would be ready early in the morning.
I looked around the filthy cell. One small barred window near the ceiling, a formidable door, and empty walls. The mirror man sat on the floor with his head down. This guy was always looking at the floor.
What would Hugh do? He wouldn’t sit and wait to be hanged, that’s for sure. Hugh would try to escape. I looked around one more time. “We have to escape,” I told the mirror man. He said nothing, so I tried again. “Do you know any way to escape from here?”
“You can’t escape the King,” he answered.
“We can try!” I insisted. He was silent again. “Don’t you want to save your life?”
“Where I would go?” he replied. “I have family here, my wife and kids. If I escape, they’ll be punished instead. And there are guards all around the island. Anyway, we all know that our island is the best of all. Our life is bearable compared to the others, especially Shark Island.”
I asked if he’d ever been to the other islands and he shook his head, surprised. He told me he’d never talked to anyone who had been to other islands, or seen those other islands in a book or a movie or even a photograph. But he knew that their island was the best. “We have the best palace, where everything, absolutely everything, is made of real gold,” he boasted.
“Everything?” I asked. He nodded yes. “Even the bars on the dungeon windows?” Another nod. I jumped to my feet in my excitement, dragged him up with me, and told him to stand still under the small window.
With the mirror man’s permission, I stood on his shoulders and easily removed all the bars from the window. “Are you sure you don’t want to go with me?” I asked. He said no, thank you, and in a moment I was outside in the garden and running my head off, putting as much distance as possible between the crazy monarch and myself.
I kicked my way right through the painted wall and onto the weedy dirt road. I looked around to get my bearings and sprinted across a barren field towards some sand dunes. I knew I’d reached the border crossing when I saw several soldiers playing cards, separated by a narrow stream of water from other soldiers, also playing cards but wearing different uniforms. When the King’s soldiers saw me coming, one of them aimed his rifle at me. “Turn back!” he shouted. “By His Majesty’s royal decree, no one is allowed to leave the Island of Love! Stop or be killed!”
Only ingenuity and quick thinking could save my neck. Hugh, where are you?! Suddenly I remembered I was still wearing the King’s hat. I stood tall, shoulders back, nose in the air. “On your feet!” I roared. The all jumped to stand at attention. “Do you see this hat?” I demanded as grandly as I could, pointing at it. The soldiers looked closely. “It is the King’s hat, right? And if it is the King’s hat, then the person wearing it is . . . the King!”
Luckily for me, these soldiers’ heads were good only for wearing soldiers’ hats; they couldn’t figure out what to say or do. I pointed at the ground and shouted, “And if this person is the King, down on the ground immediately! And take out your mirrors, or you will all be put to death!”
The soldiers threw themselves face-first into the sand and struggled with their mirrors. I decided not to wait for them to realize how stupid they were. I threw the King’s hat into the air, ran as fast as I could, and jumped over the stream, and . . .
5. The Island of Fulfillment
. . . there I was, standing in front of the soldiers on the neighboring island. What a strange place this archipelago is, I thought; you just jump a few feet across a narrow stream and end up in a totally different world.
I was afraid that the soldiers would kick me right back to the Island of Love, but instead the one with the most stripes on his dark brown uniform asked if I had any good imported cigarettes. I politely told him no, and he politely told me I was under arrest, explaining that their orders were to stop anyone from leaving the island. And so, despite my protests that I was not leaving but coming in, I was promptly arrested and marched off to headquarters in the capital city. On the way they asked me if I had any goodies from the Shark Island. Just in case I was lying, the soldiers searched me several times and were disappointed to find out that I was telling the truth.
The soldiers were eager to ask questions about my travels, the countries I’d visited and miracles I’d seen. We were walking down the dirt road like a group of friends, not like a prisoner escorted by a squad of soldiers. They had heard nothing about any boys flying on kites to the island.
The closer we got to the city, the farther they moved away from me, forming two columns beside me, and finally began to look like real army unit. When we entered the island’s capital they were all marching briskly, with me in the middle and the sergeant in front, sober faces, guns clinging to their hands, all their body language showing their eagerness to defend their homeland against any foreign or domestic enemy. That’s when I started getting scared. And when I get scared, I always think about what Hugh would do.
Hugh taught me to observe things. He said that most people look, but they don’t see. As an example, he offered to prove that he can always tell when a person is lying to him. Of course, I immediately accepted his challenge. Hugh then asked me several questions, and every time I lied he caught me. Every time. One hundred percent. Then he taught me how to do it. “Look at a person,” he said, “and notice where the pupils of the eyes go when he tries to recall things and when he is lying. Most people do the same thing; when they try to remember things and tell you the truth, their pupils go up and right. When they lie, their pupils go up and left.” Bingo. The coolest thing I ever learned. Nerds can be awfully interesting. I’ve never even tried to lie to Hugh since.
The first thing I noticed about the capital city was the total silence on the streets, except for the radios and TVs broadcasting the same program from every street corner. They had been playing a march, then a stern voice informed the citizens about important new laws, how well the state was preparing to defend itself against any enemy, and after that to destroy all of its enemies for good! The voice bashed its enemies, some already familiar to me, but had really bad things to say about Shark Island. I assumed they were at war with this most evil enemy of humanity.
Another interesting observation I made was that every passerby wore a little gray device in one ear. One of the soldiers explained it was a radio receiver. Every citizen had to wear such an earpiece, which was tuned to the island’s one and only station, which broadcasted radio and TV signals to receivers on every street and in every building. When I asked about other stations, the sergeant made a rude noise. He then sharply informed me that more than one source of information is needed only where the media and the government lie to the people; that here, on the best island in the archipelago, the government never, ever lied to the people; that everything the citizens need to know is learned by listening to this one station; and that if something wasn’t broadcasted, the citizens didn’t need it.
The city looked more like a military camp or prison than a proper human habitat. All the buildings were dirty gray or brown, and the citizens all dressed in the same dirty brown and gray colors. Their clothes bore the insignia of their profession, whether railroad worker or college professor. Each person also wore a badge showing their status or “level,” as the sergeant called it. It is very important and progressive, I was told, to know exactly to whom you are speaking; otherwise, you might talk with an inappropriate person. But just what “inappropriate” was, no one was able to explain to me.
The people on the streets were not very curious about our little procession, and we soon reached the main entrance of a long, gray, two-story building. The entrance was barricaded with several lines of wire strung across the street, apparently to slow down possible attackers. As we entered the building I noticed that, behind the windows of the second floor, were standing very alert soldiers with machine guns aimed in every direction.
I waited for hours. The soldiers left me in a room with no windows, just two chairs and a table. There wasn’t even a radio, but there was plenty to read. The walls were nearly covered with warning signs and slogans: never reveal state secrets to anyone, be careful when talking to strangers, the enemy is always listening. There also were several posters with terrible and bloodthirsty images of the dreaded enemy: the leaders of the People’s Army and the Underground Web.
I started out pacing the room like a Bengal tiger. (I never saw a Bengal tiger pace, but Hugh once used this expression and I liked it.) To tell you the truth, I am a coward. A major coward. Acting cool just helps me hide my real self. I’m afraid of the dark, of heights, of being alone in an elevator, of insects, of mice, but mostly I’m afraid to show that I’m afraid.
I sat down and tried to relax. I thought back to the day Hugh asked if I’d be interested in learning how to fly. Without even thinking I had said yes. Who wouldn’t? But what did this nerd actually mean? With a coolness I could never match, Hugh revealed that he was building a flying machine and needed a strong body to try it. Little did I know I was being offered the biggest adventure of my entire life.
Then Hugh spotted my Aikido training manual and grabbed it. He flipped through the pages with enormous speed and concentration. “You won’t learn anything like that,” I sneered. “It took me more than a year to study this book.”
Hugh closed the book and handed it to me. “Open it at any page and read out loud.”
I opened the book. “Page twenty-three. This posture will allow you always to be in balance, while . . .” Hugh broke in: “. . . at the same time allowing you to put your sparring partner off balance.” Exactly right. I stared at him in astonishment. “I have a photographic memory,” Hugh said quietly. “I remember everything I’ve ever read or watched or heard.”
Hugh later told me his gift was both a blessing and a curse. He wanted to write poetry, but every time he chose his first word he remembered many poems that started with that word, and couldn’t write anything of his own.
That was the day I lost interest in everything but Hugh. We discussed his projects, his thoughts and ideas. Together we built wings that were supposed to take me up. He was the brains, I was the brawn. We used Leonardo daVinci’s drawings that Hugh found in an old library book. It didn’t work. Then Hugh tried to change iron into gold. Same result. We traced human origins (Hugh rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution) and both went crazy over Sumerian clay tablets with evidence that aliens had visited Earth before the Deluge. I remember the night we sat together under a blanket using a flashlight to read Twelfth Planet: Book I of the Earth Chronicles by Zecharia Sitchin. We came to believe that aliens discovered Earth and genetically altered humans to make us look and act like themselves. Then we spent long days discussing a book called Forbidden Archeology, which our teachers forbade us not only to read, but also mention in the classroom. Somehow my grades got better and better and I didn’t have any time for my cool friends. But by far the most fascinating subject I discussed with Hugh was the Thousand Islands Empire. This is where our dreams were. This was the destination we wanted so badly to reach. And now I was here. Alone. Looking for Hugh.
My thoughts were interrupted when the door opened and a young officer entered, his manner as sharp and crisp as his uniform, his eyes as shiny as his well-polished boots. He briskly shook my hand, sat down, put a pack of cigarettes and a box of candy on the table, and smiled in a very friendly manner. “OK,” he said casually as he sat down, “We know everything except a few insignificant details . . . for example, which Island’s spy agency you’re working for.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “I’m not working for anyone!” I protested. “I landed on the Island of Love and was almost killed by that crazy king of theirs. I was lucky to escape.”
“Sure you were,” said the officer, still smiling as he pulled out a pen and a small notebook. “So who are your accomplices here? Are they from the Underground Web? The People’s Army of Freedom and Liberty?” He gestured at the posters of the enemy and sneered. “Their days are numbered, you know. We have very nearly crushed them. Soon they will be exterminated!”
I decided it would be best to change the subject. “I am looking for my friend. His name is Hugh. He got sick and was taken to a hospital, and disappeared. I think he flew here, to the Thousand Islands, but I don’t know how to find him. There are so many islands in this Empire!”
“Friend, Hugh,” the officer muttered as he scribbled a note. When he looked at me again his smile had vanished, and his eyes were hard and suspicious. “How many friends in all? Where are they hiding? How did you get here? What is your mission? Who gave you your orders?” His voice sharpened with each question.
Suddenly a loud noise like an air-strike alarm sounded, and the officer leaped to attention. He was concentrating hard, his eyes turned inward, his expression blank. When I saw him smile I knew he must be listening to a broadcast. I saw no earpiece, but I had seen that look on the faces of the people in the streets. I took a deep breath and began slowly backing away from the young officer. He paid absolutely no attention to me. I eased into a corridor filled with soldiers and citizens standing or sitting where the beginning of the speech found them. All were looking inward, focused on their earpieces while the speech rang out from radios and TVs in every corridor, elevator, office, waiting room and washroom. The whole island came to a total stop, except for me. As I left the building, I looked up at the soldiers on the second floor. They were still very much alert for incoming danger, but not for someone leaving the building. They ignored me completely.
I saw a police officer down the street, making sure everyone was listening to the speech. I had to hide; any officer would immediately notice that I wore different clothes and had no earpiece. I looked around wildly, and across the street I saw a sign in the window of a small radio repair shop: “Earpieces Sold Hear.” The officer turned a corner and I dashed over to the shop, caught my breath, and managed to walk in as if I went there every day. The owner stood behind the cash register like a statue, his eyes looking inward. I looked around at all of the different radio devices for sale, and decided I had to do something I’d never done before in whole my life: steal. I felt terrible just thinking about it, but my life was at stake. I had just picked up one of the earpieces when the statue asked, “You looking for a speaker or a silencer?”
I was so startled and ashamed and confused that I just blurted out, “A what??” And I instantly recognized my mistake. That simple answer had told him very clearly that I was a stranger to his world, and therefore probably a spy. Of course he was going to call the police.
He slowly turned to meet my eyes. “I thought you were a squeezja, but now I can see you’re not.”
“What?” I squeaked, and tried again. “What did you think I was?”
The storekeeper smiled. “A squeezja, you know an informer.” But I didn’t know, and the look on my face made him smile even wider. Hugh was wonderful about explaining words I didn’t know, especially big ones, and he never made me feel stupid at all.
But to my surprise, the storekeeper continued in a very kind voice. “An informer is someone who calls the police when they see people ignoring important broadcasts, or talking to a stranger— like I’m doing now.” He picked up an earpiece just like the one he wore himself. “This one doesn’t broadcast, but it will signal you when to freeze in place with both your eyes looking at your nose”—he smiled at me—“as if you were actually listening to their stupid music and their idiotic speeches.”
I thanked him and told him he reminded me of my best friend. He peeked through the shop windows, closed all the blinds, and invited me to share his lunch. The food was simple but tasty, and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. I was terribly hungry, but I had been so scared for so long that I had forgotten all about food. I made up for lost time while he explained the facts of life here on the Island of Fulfillment.
I learned that people who listen to the broadcasts were called “b’duks.” The b’duks believed whatever they were told and followed every stupid rule and command the government issued. The squeezjas, on the other hand, didn’t believe in anything; they just liked to hurt other people. Sometimes a person became a squeezja to get a neighbor or coworker in trouble, or to get rid of a rival, or to “get in good” with the government. The storekeeper explained that b’duks and squeezjas sneak around and inform the police about any “suspicious activities” they see. And when the government starts looking into your activities, he said, the trouble starts. Many people simply disappeared after they were squeezed, and then the government quietly took their homes and belongings.
“If you want, I can put you in touch with the resistance forces,” he said. “My younger brother is in one of the most active units. Soon we will be powerful enough to overthrow the government, and then we’ll all be free at last.”
I politely thanked him but refused his offer, explaining that I couldn’t understand anything about their politics and that I just wanted to find Hugh. The storekeeper wasn’t happy to hear that, but he shook my hand and gave me a sandwich. He put the fake device in my ear, helped me (over my protests) into an old brown-gray overcoat, and we parted. He was a very good man, I decided.
I also decided that it would be much better for me to leave this island. It was useless to keep searching; Hugh would never choose to live here.
Walking around with the earpiece and the overcoat was much safer. Police officers just glanced at me and turned away. Calmer now, I began to notice things I wasn’t able to see before. Many people were listening to radios with their eyes turned inward. Other people just pretended, like me. They looked like b’duks, but from time to time they glanced around like normal people, obviously ignoring the marches and speeches blaring from every direction. When I tried to meet their eyes they would quickly look away, but in the process I caught a glimpse of recognition, as if we belonged to the same secret brotherhood. It was scary and fun at the same time.
A couple of times I thought someone was following me. When I saw two men staring at me, I entered a fashion store. I didn’t see any fashion, just the same dull, brown-gray clothing for men and women. I used the store’s mirrors to watch my back, like in spy movies, but didn’t see the two men again. I sighed with relief, told myself it was only my imagination, and left the store. I thought about building another raft or stowing away on a cargo ship. Soon I found a street named Oceanside, which I followed to the shore and the very busy marina.
The marina was crowded with submarines and warships, all the same familiar brown-gray color. I moved along the street and saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of a small tavern. I went inside and was told they needed someone to clean the tables. I immediately took the job. The tavern gradually filled with sailors, workers from the nearby streets, a couple of traveling salesman, and a group of artists who were stained with paint from head to toe. I kept an eye on the sailors, thinking I might become a cabin boy—or maybe even a stowaway.
I overheard many conversations while I worked. From the sailors I learned that every outgoing boat and ship was searched by military guards. At the salesmen’s table they were talking about smuggling. I learned that Shark Island produced the best and most desirable goods, but it was against the law to import them. Yet despite the ban, everyone on the Island of Fulfillment had gadgets made on Shark Island.
The artists were drinking beer and talking about portraits of the rulers, which they apparently were painting day and night. The leader of the gang had wild red hair and a huge nose. He was telling jokes, and the others were all laughing and clapping their hands.
Suddenly I noticed the conversations were dying out; even the drunks spoke quietly and then stopped altogether. Through the window I saw two plainclothes police officers standing across the street. One held a strange gadget in his hands, and both were squinting at the tavern.
The red-haired artist grabbed my collar and whispered, “Get rid of your earpiece, you moron, it broadcasts your location.” He let me go and picked up his joke right where he left off. I ran out the back door into the alley and found a cat sleeping near the garbage cans. I grabbed the cat and attached the earpiece to its collar before it ran off into the darkness. I hid behind the garbage cans. For a couple of minutes everything was quiet, but then I heard voices and saw two men running up the alley in the direction the cat took. I saw the gadget (now I knew it was a locator) one of them was holding. In a couple of heartbeats two more plainclothes officers appeared, running in the same direction. Then everything became quiet again. The door opened and there stood Red-hair. “Put this on,” he said, handing me a paint-stained artist’s smock. “In this thing no one will look at you twice.”
That night I slept in the artists’ studio. When I woke up all five or six of them were doing something: painting, cleaning brushes, making breakfast, listening to soft music . . . Whoa! I said to myself; real music? Here? I looked around and in one corner of the studio I noticed a small government radio very quietly naming recent major achievements in the island’s agriculture and advising all patriots to be extremely cautious around foreigners. In another corner a very different radio was playing very different music.
Red-hair saw my astonishment and grinned. “We have special permission to listen to music,” he explained. “Our permit is posted at the entrance to the studio. Music helps to inspire artists. Can’t paint a proper portrait of a country’s leader without inspiration, right?” He winked at me. “Of course, those ridiculous marches inspire nothing but headaches, so we listen to real music from Shark Island. Terrible place, that island. Their music is great, but they have no real culture. They call themselves Objectivists. Half of this island dreams about escaping to the Sharks. I can understand simpletons dreaming about getting their sorry asses over there because of the gadgets the Sharkies are famous for, but people with deep-seated culture?! Everyone knows they have no artistic expression over there. Plain crazy.”
I looked around at the artists working on several portraits of the same man in his forties. The portraits were all of the same size and more or less the same composition: a shoulder portrait of the same man in different clothes. In one portrait he wore a general’s uniform, in another a civilian jacket; in still another he held a little girl in his arms. Then in a corner of the studio I saw several portraits of a different man in the same uniform, and even holding the same little girl. In another corner I found a pile of faceless portraits: same uniform, same jacket, same girl, but the man had no face. I soon found the answer to my puzzlement.
One of the artists yelled, “Shut up everybody, and listen to this!” and turned up the volume on the official radio. The announcer’s voice was very solemn but with happy notes underneath. “… and now, finally, after this long period of suffering we can rejoice: the Dictator, the terrible Oppressor of the People, was this very morning ousted from his usurped post of Island President. The People’s Army of Freedom and Liberty and its leader…”
“Hooray!” the artists shouted in one voice, grinning from ear to ear and shaking hands all around. They shut off the official radio and started talking all at once. “The best news of all!” “It’s about time!” “Here we go again.” “Hey, this calls for a real celebration.” A dozen bottles of beer appeared out of nowhere.
“I don’t understand,” I said, confused. “I see you guys are very happy, but . . .”
“Of course we’re happy!” Red-hair roared, and then grinned. He opened two bottles of beer and began to drink from both of them; first left, then right, then left again. “Now Headquarters will commission us to paint portraits of our new beloved leader, my guess is about a hundred fifty. Maybe even more. They hang in every government office and every public place. When there’s a change of power, we are happy! Hooray for change! Change! Change!” They all clinked bottles and drank.
“And life will be different now, hooray!” I yelled happily.
“Oh, no! Nothing will be different,” Red-hair stated, watching his fellow artists pile up the ousted leader’s unfinished portraits and dust off the faceless ones.
“Hey,” one yelled, “who has a photo of the People’s Army clown?”
“There are other clowns coming,” announced another voice. “A whole squad of them marching up the stairs. Probably looking for our guest.” I froze in fear, but two of the artists grabbed me, smeared paint on my face and hair, stuck a paintbrush in my hand, and sat me down in front of a faceless portrait. They stepped back to admire their handiwork—artists are artists, after all—and a split second later the door of the studio opened with a bang.
“Everybody freeze!” An officer and a dozen soldiers rushed in, their weapons ready. “We are looking for a traitor from the People’s Army of Freedom and Liberty. It has been reported that he was seen talking to you in the port tavern.”
“But the People’s Army . . .” Red-hair stopped in mid-sentence, a huge smile growing on his face. In a flash I understood. This squad had been searching for me all night, and didn’t know about the big change.
The officer turned to the door and motioned someone to enter. I immediately recognized the friendly shopkeeper who had given me the earpiece—and forgot to mention it was also a locater. No wonder he knew all about squeezjas, the dirty fink! He swaggered up to one artist after another, peering at their faces. I knew he’d recognize me in a split second, but before he got close Red-hair took matters into his own hands. “But officer, everyone here supports the People’s Army,” he said loudly, his voice echoing off the rafters.
Never before had I seen words have such an effect on people. The invaders all froze in absolute shock. “Isn’t that so, my brothers?” Red-hair turned to his gang, who promptly shouted in perfect chorus, “Three cheers for the People’s Army!” My voice was the loudest.
The officer began to back away, then realized that all we had was paintbrushes. He sneered at us and stood as tall as possible. “Freedom and liberty, hah! You People’s Army scum disgusts me,” he spat. “Arrest them all!”
He turned smartly on his heel and found himself facing the People’s Army leader, whose photo had been tacked it up on the wall to be copied. His face went red as a beet and he actually gurgled a little. “You have the nerve to display the face of this filthy beast, this despicable monster? You will all die in agony, tortured for your acts of high treason!” The officer pulled his weapon and fired a bullet right between the leader’s eyes. “That is what will happen when I find the bastard,” he smirked. His eyes gleamed as he imagined himself in a grand parade, being showered with gold, the toast of the capital, the defender of the motherland, the destroyer of the Great Enemy of the State!
“But captain, you can easily find him at Headquarters,” Red-hair volunteered smoothly. “And you may be certain that we will show him his photograph, with your compliments.” One of the artists turned up the radio, and the announcer’s voice rang out “ . . . hooray for the People’s Army of Freedom and Liberty! Hooray for our courageous new leader, who . . . ”
For the second time that day I experienced the awesome power of words. This time the officer’s face went white as a sheet, his knees buckled, and he began to tremble all over. He ran to Red- hair with tears in his eyes and grabbed his hand. “I will give you anything you want, only spare me, I beg you! I have money, connections, two beautiful sisters . . .”
“Get out of here,” Red-hair snarled. “Out!” The officer whimpered and starting backing toward the door, motioning the squad to follow suit.
“But what about the traitor?” yelped the storekeeper, seeing his reward slip through his fingers. “Get out, get out, get out!” the officer screamed, and they all disappeared.
Red-hair let out a long whistle. “That was close. Now you must leave, and quickly. I know our military; they’ll be back.”
I hurried my good-byes and left the studio. The moment I was on the street, the soldiers jumped me and dragged me face-to-face with the storekeeper. “That’s him,” he stated. “I remember this ugly face very well.” The officer snapped his fingers, and once again I was arrested and escorted to headquarters. But instead of going to the interrogation rooms, we made our way to a different part of the building. First the shopkeeper disappeared, then the soldiers were halted by an “Authorized Personnel Only” sign. The officer handed me over to two guards, who brought me to the elevator and stood aside when another guard in plain clothes invited me in. The elevator went down and down; I counted at least seven or eight floors. Silly me; I thought it was a two- story structure . . .
The elevator stopped, the door opened, and I stepped into a totally different world. That crazy King’s throne room was a closet compared to this! The room was enormous and luxuriously decorated. The entire floor was transparent, revealing an enormous aquarium alive with every possible kind of sea creature. The lighting was superb; the furnishings were magnificent. And this place was high tech to the core: huge view screens displayed images ranging from artistic masterpieces to photographs of the most exciting places imaginable. A group of men sat in armchairs around a glass table, watching me. They were casually dressed and holding various beverages, but something told me this wasn’t a casual meeting.
My guard disappeared after gently guiding me to an armchair made of a soft and totally unfamiliar material. A waiter appeared instantly and asked what I would like to drink. I asked for water; he delivered an ice-cold glass in only seconds. I took a few sips as I looked around the table, and recognized two faces: one was the leader who had just been overthrown by the People’s Army of Freedom and Liberty, and the other was the leader of that very army. I’d spent hours looking at their portraits in the artists’ studio.
“This meeting is absolutely unofficial,” the ousted leader began, “so let us call it first contact, so to speak.” I acknowledged his statement with a slow nod. Something was definitely wrong with this picture, and I needed time to understand what role I was supposed to play. “The truth is, we didn’t expect someone so young. We were told you would look a bit odd and arrive in a rather unusual way, but still, you took us by surprise.” He smiled, but his eyes were cold. Another man spoke up. “Maybe on Shark Island you invented something that keeps you looking young?” Suddenly all were very much alert.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I had to say something. “We are in the process,” I stated carefully. The group sighed.
“They did it, they invented the Fountain of Youth!” exclaimed the new leader. “Now the question is distribution. Everyone will give their last coin to become young again. The women alone; my God! I mean, ah, that is, would you consider granting us exclusive distribution rights?”
These guys thought I was some kind of sales rep from Shark Island. I thought fast and answered slow. “That would be a bit, uh, premature, gentlemen.”
“Of course, of course, you prefer to test us with smaller things, more conventional, so to speak,” said a deeply tanned man with a large mustache. He looked like a British colonel just returned from India. “As you can see, we are already excellent customers; everything in this room came from Shark Island. But we want to take our relationship to the next level.”
“We will gladly answer any questions,” offered the ousted leader. “Naturally, you’ll want to know about our corporate structure, our system of accounting, things like that.”
“Well, yes,” I said, “I would like to clear up a few things. For example, why does the whole island think there’s been a change in the regime, when apparently—and correct me if I’m wrong—there hasn’t?”
They all laughed; one nudged his neighbor and winked. Then the ousted leader explained, “People get tired of living under one regime. They want change. We provide as much change as they want. Actually, we provide change so often that it might be a good idea to stop for a change.” More laughter. “It is our opinion that freedom is contrary to human nature. Animals can live free, but people cannot. What do you think most people really want: to be free and poor with no food or shelter, or to eat three times a day, have a roof over their heads, and no worries about tomorrow? If someone takes care of their problems, they are happy.”
“But,” interjected another man, “there is another side of human nature: being unhappy under any conditions. You know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. So we decided to give the citizens the very best of the both worlds. If we don’t provide them with alternatives to the present regime, someone else will.”
“People must be given a goal and an enemy,” said the British colonel with great authority. “Our citizens have been focused on fighting an unseen enemy and on building the best army in the archipelago. They are consumed with this goal, and happy that they succeed. No one attacks them.” More laughter. “No one wants to attack us, but they don’t know that. They’re so busy doing something very important, that they don’t ask where all the money and all the fruits of their hard labor go. “
“And don’t forget about the enemy within,” chimed in a baby-faced guy who seemed vaguely familiar. I suddenly remembered the posters in the interrogation room; this man was a vicious criminal called the Spider because he controlled his victims from the center of the infamous Underground Web. “It was my idea to have them wear those stupid earpieces and to broadcast right into their brains,” he added proudly.
“OK, look,” I said, wondering if I could get out of this situation alive, “you seem to have figured everything out, so why do you need me?”
“Let me take it from here,” said the leader of the Liberation Army, “since I am, at this point in time, the leader of this island and the corporation.” The others fell into respectful silence. “People are stupid. We washed their brains and they are completely loyal to whatever regime we invent for them. We can make our people spy on each other. We can make them march as one. We can make them study hard in schools that are probably the best in the archipelago. We produce great scientists, engineers, athletes, and artists. We can kill them—which we frequently do, as a matter of fact—but some things we can’t do. We can’t implement a single invention and mass-produce it. Take goods that come from your island; everything has a look and feel of fineness, of quality. Everything we make is fit only for a military installation or a prison. Seems like only people who are free can . . .”
“Forgive the interruption, gentlemen, but you’re making a huge mistake.” A woman’s voice rang out behind me, and I turned to see an elegantly dressed woman in her forties move from the shadows into the light. “This is not a well-preserved middle-aged man; this is a boy. I know, because I know my trade.”
The men stared at me in silence, their faces grim and cold. When the leader spoke, his voice was sharp as a knife. “She’s right. We have made a stupid mistake. Whoever reported that this is the man we were waiting for will suffer the consequences. Now we must dispose of this sly boy who has learned too much.”
“Give him to me,” said the woman, “and he will never trouble you again.” The men exchanged glances. “Or better yet, sell him to me.”
The leader laughed, and the others joined in. “Very well, my dear, if you want him . . .” She tossed a coin, which he caught in mid-air. “. . .sold!… he is yours.”
And that’s how I became a slave to a woman from the Island of Honor and Justice.
6. The Island of Honor and Justice
Once, we were talking about slavery in our history class. It was so far away from our lives, that we were joking and laughing about it. The jokes went too far. Couple of black guys got offended and proclaimed that everyone owed them because their ancestors were slaves. One Latino told them that they shall get over it but this is how blacks make living – by constant wining about their past. It would end up by a fight if not our history teacher who was ex-marine and who tried hard not only to stop the quarrel, but also calm the heads.
It didn’t work. Soon black population of the school was dead set to teach Latinos a lesson or two, and Latino boys were swearing to drink their blood. They even agreed to meet one night and decide who is afraid of what, and see who are men and who are not.
How childish all that sounded now, when I was sold into slavery and had no idea will I survive or die on the far away island, among people who didn’t even know my name and didn’t care.
“Your name now is slave #121, and you shall address me as ‘Milady,” the woman said, her voice like ice and her eyes just as cold.
Being a slave is no fun. First of all, you have to obey all kinds of orders. You can’t say, “I am tired,” or “I’ll watch a little TV and then do it.” Slave owners enjoy using whips, which hurts. A lot. And there’s no one you can to turn to for help. You’re property, not a person; you’re a thing that belongs to your owner, who can do whatever they want with you. Milady didn’t want to damage her property; to her slaves were like furniture, and who wants to ruin a good table? But she also believed that a good beating never spoiled a slave, and carried a whip wherever she went.
At daybreak I was led to a barn where there were several man dressed in long sacks and heavy boots. On their heads were hats of the same sacking material. They were squatted down, chewing something, and paid no attention to me. Milady appeared, and her whip began its dance. The men quickly harnessed themselves to an elegant carriage. I tasted her whip for the first time and understood that I was to be used as a horse as well. Soon we were pulling the carriage onto the main road, carrying Milady and her belongings. From time to time she beat us to make us go faster, or just because she felt like it. We came to the border stream but no one stopped us; apparently Milady was well known, and we crossed the narrow bridge onto the Island of Honor and Justice. Milady halted the carriage and handed out pieces of fabric, which each man used to cover his nose, lips and chin. I followed their example, wondering what the cloth was for. Milady sank back into the silk cushions and we began our two-hour trot to the island’s capital.
We entered a part of the city with small, rundown houses, narrow dirt roads riddled with holes full of scummy water, and the stink of spoiled garbage everywhere. We passed a fish market, then a factory, then several official-looking buildings. All the men I saw had their faces covered with fabric. As we proceeded the landscape changed; houses became larger and cleaner, roads were wide and smooth, and the air smelled of flowers. Milady’s whip danced again and we made a sharp turn, entered a wide gateway, and halted in the middle of a busy slave market. A tall woman hurried forward and greeted Milady with a great show of respect. A ring of keys, a whip, and a sword all hung from her wide leather belt. “I want to buy two fighting men,” Milady told the slave trader as she exited the carriage, using one of the slaves as a stepstool. “Two strong gladiators for an upcoming competition.”
Milady and the slave trader walked toward the holding pens, and the men in harness sat right down on the ground and began chewing again. I ran after Milady and asked if I could go too. She answered with her whip. “Men may speak to women only when first spoken to,” she hissed at me, then stalked away. Since she didn’t tell me to go back to the carriage, I followed her at a safe distance. I saw men in cages who looked like apes and grown-ups the size of small children, called pygmies. I saw men being trained as laborers, servants, hairdressers, tailors, and cooks. I saw singers and dancers and musicians and acrobats at practice. Finally we came to the gladiators’ cages.
Milady went from cage to cage looking for something special. At last she stopped and pointed. The slave trader quickly unlocked the cage and led two huge men, obviously twins, to a stage that looked like a boxing ring. I came closer. Then the slave trader brought two more large men to the stage and ordered them to fight. Some fight; it was over in ten seconds. The twins almost killed the others, leaving them unconscious on the floor. The slave trader handed the twins some kind of food, and they stuffed their mouths as if they were starving.
“The price is ridiculous,” Milady told the trader. “I am ready to take them, but you want a fortune. They’re not worth it.”
“Let me make you a proposition,” said the slave trader: “I found a boy wandering the streets near the palace. He says he belongs to no one, which is absurd as we all know. He’s probably a runaway and up for grabs. I will give him to you at no charge. Three for the price of two, so to speak.”
The slave trader made a sign and a thin boy about my age was brought to stand before Milady. He was led by a rope tied around his neck, like a dog on a leash. His hands were bound behind his back, and his ankles were tied so he could walk but not run away. To my surprise the boy didn’t look frightened; his big, gray eyes just looked at us as if he couldn’t care less. “He tried to escapes more than a dozen times,” explained the slave trader, “and almost killed one of my best guards. His looks are very deceptive.”
“Where are you from, boy? Who is your master?” demanded Milady. He didn’t answer. Milady’s whip tore the air and struck hard, but the boy didn’t even flinch. He just kept looking at Milady with the same indifference as before.
“Maybe he’s just stupid,” ventured the slave trader.
“No,” answered Milady, “not stupid. I think I will take him. Yes, I will take all three of them.”
I was hiding behind a cage, thinking I was safe, but Milady suddenly turned to meet my eyes and ordered, “Take him to the others and wait.” I quickly came closer, was handed the boy’s leash, and started back to the carriage.
After a moment I looked around, and when I didn’t see Milady I untied the boy. He just stood there, looking at me with the same indifference. I said, “Look, I’m new to this game. I’ve been on this island less than three hours, and I’ve never been a slave before. I don’t like it when people are beaten or tied up or sold, so let’s go to our carriage; you’ll eat something and we will see what the future holds for us.”
Instead of thanking me, the boy looked me up and down and said, “Were you speaking to me, slave?” before he turned and walked away.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” I yelled, and ran after him. Without even turning or stopping for a split second, he punched me right in the Adam’s apple. I dropped to my knees, choking and gasping from the pain. When I finally got to my feet again, the boy was standing near me. I guess my surprise showed on my face, because he said, “You’d get a severe beating for untying me, so I decided to stay for the time being.” I figured this was his way of thanking me for his freedom. So off we went, back to the carriage and into harness, and waited for Milady and her new gladiators.
Milady lived in one of the most beautiful houses in the city: a stately mansion surrounded by lush greenery and a tall wall with huge iron gates. As we approached two slaves opened the gates for us, and then locked them again after the carriage had entered the estate.
The cook’s helpers came to our slave barracks carrying platters of food and drink. There were at least two dozen male slaves in Milady’s household, and four tables were set up on one side of the barrack. I sat at the very end of the last table with the new boy, slave #122. We were the most insignificant members of this insignificant group, who were not even people to their owner.
All attention was on the twin gladiators as they tore at huge pieces of meat and talked in turns with their mouths full. They boasted without shame about their many victories over easily defeated opponents, calling themselves undeclared champions. At one point the new boy chuckled, and everyone turned in our direction. The gladiators must have thought I was the one who laughed, because one of them beckoned me with his finger. I slowly stood up, walked over, and stopped in front of the table where they sat.
One said to his twin, “Hey, bro, show these guys how we took care of those two stupid meat cutters today,” and laughed harshly.
Milady’s slave master broke in, “If you damage him, Milady will not be pleased.”
The other twin stood up, glared at the slave master, climbed over the table, and stood within arm’s reach of me. “As we were saying, I came up on this guy from the left, see, and hooked him in the head like this . . .” His huge fist swung at me, but he was quite slow. I ducked and he missed me by an inch. Thanks Hugh.
Hugh always said that since he was weak, one member of our team must be very strong. He encouraged me to study Aikido and I became really good at it, earning a fifth Dan in this martial art. The first thing I remember learning was to stay calm. The second thing was to always turn your opponent against himself.
I didn’t want to fight this monster, or anyone else for that matter, but his slowness encouraged me. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “but I wasn’t laughing at you. Actually, I was talking with my friend, and . . .” I stopped, realizing he was so surprised I wasn’t lying on the floor that he didn’t even hear me.
A basic rule of martial arts is “Never repeat unsuccessful blows.” Apparently this rule was unknown in the Thousand Islands Empire, because the big ape decided to repeat his hook just as slowly.
He was even more surprised when I moved aside, let him reach beyond me with the center of his body off balance, and gently pushed him in the direction he was already falling. He hit the floor with a funny squeaking sound, and the barracks practically exploded with laughter. This enraged the ape on the floor and his twin as well, who was now on his way to kill me. The first brother got to his feet, determined to help his twin in this honorable task. I stood no chance against both of them.
But then something strange happened. A split second before reaching me, the second twin suddenly fell to his knees. Behind him stood slave #122, with the same indifferent look in the big gray eyes but now with a whip in one hand. When the twin tried to get off his knees the whip sang again, and he hugged the floor, bewildered and frightened. Suddenly Milady’s voice rang out. “Return the gladiators to the market, and bring back every coin I paid for those worthless clowns,” she ordered her slave master, and then turned to us. “You two will be trained for the arena in their place.”
So we began training together, and bit by bit I learned his story. Slave #122 once belonged to one of the richest women on the island. His owner didn’t believe in slavery and had many other new and original ideas about how life should be, but the other powerful women did not share her enthusiasm. This lady organized a factory, which began making and selling high-quality chocolates that were soon prized throughout the Empire. Her best customers lived on Shark Island, where she visited several times, and she often said that Shark Island had many things and ideas that the people of the Island of Honor and Justice should try to duplicate. This lady wanted to end slavery on the entire island, as she had in her own household, because on Shark Island she had seen for herself that free men are much better workers than slaves. She used to say that, since slaves work hard only because they fear punishment, they can never, ever be as creative or as determined as free men whose living depends on the results of their work. This great lady also used to say something else that seemed very strange: Human greed is a positive thing and a great motivator.
When the great lady freed her slaves, she offered them incentives to stay and work as her employees. Some of them stayed with great results, some left the island for good, and those who didn’t know what to do with their freedom gave themselves up to other slave owners. All the slaves on the island began talking about it, and for the first time in the island’s history there were confrontations between slaves and owners.
One day their household was raided by the Supreme Lady’s guards. The great lady was murdered, all of her employees were sold back into slavery, and only he escaped. “Our old groom gave me his clothes and helped me get away,” he explained. “I wanted to find the Supreme Lady and kill her, but I couldn’t get into the Grand Palace. I was getting ready to climb over the palace wall when that witch of a slave trader caught me. I was caged for a week before I became Milady’s slave #122.”
And then he said something that left me totally bewildered. He told me that one of the great lady’s tasks was to visit Shark Island on behalf of the government and get financial assistance from them, and that the Sharks sent humanitarian aid to practically the whole Empire. What!? The dreadful, terrible Shark Island helps other islands? The boy nodded. “They actually help all the islands in the archipelago; they send us money and food. They say they do it because many islanders are starving, and they feel obligated to help them. Stupid Sharks!” He made a face, then continued. “Of course, the food isn’t given to the poor, as those jokers think; the Supreme Lady and her friends sell it and pocket the money. That’s not only dishonest, it’s also unfair. The money should be equally divided between all the ladies on the island.”
Now I was puzzled. If someone gives food for the poor, and the delivery man steals it and sells it, does it matter who gets the dirty money—the chief thief alone, or all the thieves together? But apparently these islanders cared only about their own needs and wants, not about honor or justice. Wait a second; isn’t this place called the Island of Honor and Justice? Why thieves and liars would give that name to their island was a mystery to me. I wished Hugh were there to explain it.
I decided to learn as much as possible about life on this island, so I asked slave #122 why women were in charge, and why men had to cover their faces in their presence. He made a face. “Everybody knows that women were created from birds, and men from worms. Men, like their worm ancestors, look dirty and think dirty, and dirty words flow from their dirty mouths. Women, on the other hand, are beautiful, heavenly creatures; they have sweet thoughts and lovely dreams. Men shouldn’t even look at women, but we islanders allow it because some men are not as dirty as others. Any woman has the right to kill any man who doesn’t cover his face.”
He said that many crimes on this island were punished by death: not obeying the Supreme Lady’s orders, and drinking the funny juice of the cualora tree, and—worst of all—eating carrots. I couldn’t help it; I laughed out loud. He made a face and said, “It is written in the Great Book that we all must read before we go to sleep, although most of the time we forget. Of course, if you really want carrots you can get them from any street peddler, but they’ll be disguised as cigars or chocolates. Everyone knows where to get them, but everyone pretends they’re not carrots.” Try as I might, I couldn’t understand this way of thinking.
One day I asked if the islanders believe in God. The big, gray eyes were puzzled. “The Supreme Lady is the defender of our faith; she talks to the Great One in the Skies and brings us his will,” he said. “Where does the Great One live?” I asked, and he laughed. “The Great One doesn’t live, he just is. He is in the seventh level of the heavens, watching us all and punishing those who disobey his rules. That’s why ours is the best island of all, because we are blessed by the Great One. He doesn’t speak to any other islanders. They are non-believers and will soon be destroyed. The Great One hates non-believers. You must convert to our faith and accept him, or in your next life you’ll be a worm again.”
Our daily training was vigorous, but more important were the evening sessions without trainers, where we learned to work together. He was much better with sword and whip, and sword, and I was much better at hand-to-hand combat. He showed me trick or two, I showed him mine. We worked as a team and began to trust each other.
One day Milady brought two scary men to fight with us. At first we were severely beaten, but we regained our space and put both of them on the floor. Milady watched intently and left without a word. Another time we were encountered by four men from our own household, who suddenly attacked us as we trained. When our trainer stepped aside, we understood this was part of our learning curve. We took them apart. And one day Milady entered the training room, her whip in one hand and a sword in the other. She ordered the trainer out and turned to us. “Fight!” At first we were reluctant, but then we felt her hot whip on our skins. We fought with her until all three of us were out of breath. Then she ordered us to follow her to her chambers and locked the doors behind us. She made herself comfortable while we stood there waiting, hot and thirsty and sweaty.
“I have a proposition for you,” she said, sipping a cold drink. “I intend to overthrow the Supreme Lady and rule this island myself, but I can’t do it alone.” Her tone was casual, but I immediately understood that if we didn’t cooperate, we’d never get out of that room alive. I glanced at my teammate. “We are at your service, Milady,” he said with a nod and a tight, cold smile. “Of course,” said Milady, and sipped again. “I expected nothing less.”
I had never seen #122 smile before, and for some reason a chill ran up my spine.
Next morning we set out for the Grand Palace. We were taken to the central arena and locked in one of the many cages in the gladiators’ barracks. All the while, Milady’s slave master kept watch over us. Then spectators began crowding in, and soon the arena was filled to the last seat. Most of the people were women, some accompanied by men who looked like well-manicured dolls. The first rows were occupied by the rich; behind them sat the less fortunate, and the regular folks had to crane their necks from the top rows. Then trumpets sounded and all stood as the Supreme Lady led her entourage into the luxurious central box. Two huge bodyguards marched behind the Supreme Lady, mindful of her every step. I saw Milady among the important guests.
The Supreme Lady waved her hand and two heralds hurried to the center of the arena. First they praised their wise and just ruler. Then they reminded the crowd that their island is the best in the Empire, and that Shark Island is such a terrible and inhumane wasteland that the Great One must surely destroy it very soon. Finally they announced that Milady had challenged the Supreme Lady, and that Milady had sent two champions to fight on her behalf.
As we were escorted into the arena, we were greeted with laughter wisecracks. I must admit, #122 and I didn’t look like we belonged there. The heralds then announced that we, the challengers, could choose any of the Supreme Lady’s champions. Several bulky fighting men lined up in front of us as the crowd mocked and ridiculed us. Here we followed Milady’s instructions to the letter; instead of choosing from the line of men, we faced the Supreme Lady and pointed straight at her bodyguards.
The crowd gasped as one. The bodyguards turned to their owner, who nodded her smiling approval. The Supreme Lady was obviously enjoying herself. The two guards marched down to the arena and showed the public what they could do. They tossed huge stones into the air, crushed wooden stakes, bent iron rods, and did everything but breathe fire. Then came our turn to show our skills. We demonstrated several Aikido moves, which made the crowd laugh even harder.
All this time I kept one eye on Milady. From time to time she looked up, glancing all around, but I thought that her attention was centered on the roof of the gladiators’ barracks. Then she saw what she was waiting for, and so did I. There was a man crouching on the roof, and I instantly understood her plan. The giant bodyguards would have noticed any suspicious movement and alerted the Supreme Lady—if they hadn’t been preparing to fight with us. So now Milady’s assassin (I was sure that’s who I saw on the roof) was in position, armed but unnoticed. I looked back at the central box, but Milady wasn’t there.
I spun around and saw Milady on the floor of the arena. She waited for silence and then shouted, “I’ll wager ten thousand that my champions will win!” The crowd roared with laughter. “It was agreed that if they win, they will be freed.” The crowd laughed again. Milady then turned toward the Supreme Lady’s box and raised her right hand. A split second later I heard the whispering rustle of an arrow in flight . . . and saw Milady lying on the ground with an arrow in her back.
The silence was deafening. I remembered Hugh using that expression, and myself thinking it was unbelievably stupid. Now I knew that those words didn’t really cancel each other out. The arena was so quiet my ears started to hurt.
The Supreme Lady rose and delicately made her way down from the stands and over to Milady’s body. She looked down at what was left of her rival, then kicked the body with her foot. “She wanted to kill me, but fortunately we uncovered her plot in time,” she announced. Slaves were already carrying away Milady’s body. The Supreme Lady smiled and her voice rang out crisp and clear: “Now, my dear guests, you shall enjoy a rare spectacle, which we have arranged for your pleasure and amusement. Usually the arena challenge ends when one side’s champions are down. Today, you will see them fight to death.” She turned to her bodyguards, her smile gone, and spoke through her teeth. “Kill them.”
They came at us like charging bulls, but we acted as a team to keep them off balance and on the ground. They charged again and again, and every time they ended up eating dirt. The crowd had never seen anything like that and loudly enjoyed every moment of the show. At first the arena was against us, but soon they were cheering every move we made. We kept at the bodyguards until we found a soft spot on one, then the other, and knocked them out. We won by the rules of the arena: both our adversaries lay motionless on the ground.
The Supreme Lady’s face froze in ugly rage. She stood up and swept on her fur cloak. “Our freedom,” I shouted up at her. “We want our freedom. You agreed to free us if we won. And we won!” She glared down at me. “That was before we discovered you are traitors and deserve to die. Be grateful that we didn’t order your execution. But you won, and you can have your prize: a hot meal.” She began to turn away.
“Word of a Lady,” my teammate shouted, and everyone stopped in their tracks. The Supreme Lady turned back and laughed, but her eyes were narrow and hard. “Given to a man?” she mocked.
“Given to a Lady!” Off came the helmet, and now everyone saw the cascade of golden hair falling over slave #122’s shoulders. “I am Lady Ninoh,” she shouted over the noise of the crowd.
“You murdered my mother, and for the sake of honor and justice I challenge you. You, not your slaves! You know the law: you must accept the Lady’s Challenge. People of the Island, I invoke Lady’s Challenge!”
The Supreme Lady was furious. “Guards! Take her! Kill her!!” – she shouted, but no one moved. The Supreme Lady looked around the arena and suddenly her whole body went stiff. I looked too, and couldn’t believe my eyes. The women in the crowd were on their feet, silently watching their enraged ruler with their swords drawn. One of them murmured, “Lady’s Challenge,” and others joined in until all were softly chanting, “Lady’s Challenge! Lady’s Challenge!”
And now two of them were circling each other in the arena, one big and strong, the other thin and fast, both holding a sword and a whip. When we fought the guards the crowd had cheered; now everyone was silent. Three times Ninoh was on her knees, and three times she got up. But the fourth time, when even I thought she was a goner, she snaked her whip around her enemy’s feet and pulled with all her might. When the Supreme Lady hit the ground Ninoh was on top of her, holding a sword to her throat.
When we left the arena, no one even tried to stop us. Two swords were in our hands, but we didn’t have to use them, they let us go. Half an hour later I told Lady Ninoh, “I never thought I’d say this to a girl, but after Hugh you’re my best friend.” We walked in silence quite a long distance, and then Ninoh said, “I never thought I’d say this to a boy, but you’re my best friend too.” Then after some more silence she added: “You do not have to call me Lady. Just Ninoh.”
We walked again until we reached the stream that separated the Island of Honor from the People’s Island of Equality. Maybe the border guards had already heard about the Lady’s Challenge, or didn’t want to enter into disputes with two determined people with swards, or maybe they decided not to bother with a girl dressed like a male slave, but either way we crossed the border. When Ninoh and I were finally standing on the People’s Island, I sighed with relief. Freedom! Or so I thought.
7. The People’s Island of Justice and Equality
The Road to Paradise
Slogans were everywhere, some funny, some strange. “Tall people shall walk with smaller steps in order not to intimidate short people.” “Less is more!” And the strangest of all: “If you know and others do not, shut up.”
There was no one at the border, no one who looked remotely official farther down the road, not a sign of any uniform in the vicinity of the border and beyond. “Rejoice” instructed a huge sign near the empty customs station. On the door we saw another sign—“Out to lunch”—and then we rejoiced indeed.
I later learned that everyone on this island went to lunch at the same time every workday, due to the First Law of Justice and Equality: “What one has, all must have.” When other workers took breaks, the border guards did the same. Hail equality!
So every day, during the lunch break, the borders were wide open. And every day people hid in the bushes, waiting for the guards to leave. As we strolled across the official border, Ninoh and I noticed a few amazed faces watching us enter their country. We smiled and waved at them, but they ducked and ran off in the opposite direction.
We laughed and walked onto the main road, where a sign directed us toward the capital city of Paradise.
“I like this island already,” said Ninoh. “If everyone is equal, no one can be enslaved.” I liked that idea too. I definitely didn’t want to be a slave again.
We walked along until we found a fig tree near a stream of fresh, clear water. After a royal and juicy feast we washed up, took off our swords and stretched out on the grass to rest. Ninoh sighed contentedly. “So what do we do now?” There were no slave traders, no jailers, no royal guards or informers or enforcers. We were completely free to do anything. Or nothing. But what did we want to do?
“I am looking for Hugh,” I said at last. “You can go with me.”
Ninoh considered this proposition for a minute. “I need to think about myself,” she said matter- of-factly. “I have to find a place to stay, and some way to earn my living. But until then, I’m with you.”
I liked that very much. It’s hard to be alone in a foreign place. Sometimes you need help, sometimes you need advice, and sometimes you just need someone to listen to you, to be with you.
We resumed walking and soon began to see farmhouses on the sides of the road. All were painted the same color; all had the same roofs and windows; all doors faced the same direction. Everything was exactly alike. Then we noticed an old man sitting in a rocking chair near the remains of a recently burned house. There was still smoke and the heavy smell of burned wood.
“Did you hear the news?” the old man called out as we came closer. “A major victory! They just confirmed that we’re ahead of Shark Island in the consumption of chocolate bars! I’m so happy! We’ll beat them on cupcakes as well!” He took a big bite of a cupcake and then a big bite of a chocolate bar.
“What happened here?” I asked. “Was this your house?”
The old man looked at the swords on our belts, and asked, “Where is your third?”
We were puzzled by this very strange question, and waited for the old man to explain what he meant. He apparently lost interest in his own question; he said it was indeed his house, and it had burned down because he had built a sauna in his yard. When the sauna was finished, the villagers all came to admire it. But they couldn’t agree on when each of them could use it. Everyone wanted to use it on the weekends, which of course was impossible. The sauna created inequality between the villagers, so they burned it down.
Ninoh spoke up, her eyes flashing. “Tell us who they are, and we’ll burn down their houses.” She was dead serious.
“Wait a minute,” I said quickly. “How can someone else decide anything about your sauna?”
“They can’t on the other islands,” said the old man, “but on our Island, ‘what one has, all must have.’ It was impossible for everyone to use the sauna on weekends. We discussed it for several hours. It wasn’t an easy decision to burn it, but it was the right one. And the house burned because I built the sauna too close to the house. That was my second mistake. My neighbors tried to save the house. Such good people they are! One of them went out of his way and brought this rocking chair. And another brought milk and cookies. Ah, children, if not for my arrogance, I’d still be living in my own house, enjoying life on the best island in the world.”
And with that he filled his mouth with the rest of the cupcake and the chocolate. A little radio that miraculously survived the fire sat in the middle of the burned house, squawking something about the islanders’ achievement in consumption of chocolate milk. The merrier the announcer sounded, the happier the old man looked. He was so engaged by the broadcast that he forgot all about us, and we left.
“We still can burn a couple of houses just for fun,” Ninoh offered. I thought that would be just, but we were looking for Hugh, not trouble. Soon we entered the capital of the People’s Island of Justice and Equality. So this is Paradise, I thought.
On the outskirts of the city we saw three painters standing in front of one easel and painting on the same canvas at the same time. One was painting a tree, another was attempting a self-portrait, and the third was painting a motorboat. Can you imagine how the picture looked?
Then we noticed that three postmen were delivering one bag of mail. One postman was small, the second was average and the third large, but all three were wearing the same size uniform. As they walked along, each tried to carry the mail bag himself. Through a window of the village school we saw three teachers at the head of one classroom. All three were teaching a different subject to the same class at the same time, each one trying to be heard over the other two.
At an intersection three police officers were busily conducting traffic, each doing what they thought was most efficient and making a real mess of things. In a pizzeria, three bakers were creating one pizza. In the coffee shop across the street, three waitresses hovered around a single guest.
When we saw three men selling balloons, we stopped to ask them why three people were doing things that one person can do.
“It is because . . .” began one.
“On the People’s Island . . .” interrupted another.
“Everyone has a right to a job,” concluded the third.
“But there aren’t enough jobs to go around,” sighed the first.
“And this way everyone works, and is equal and happy,” explained the second.
“‘What one has, all must have!’” quoted the third.
“Are you all happy?” asked Ninoh. The three men exchanged puzzled glances.
“Well, now that you mention it,” ventured the first.
“We earn so little money,” continued the second.
“And are always hungry,” added the third.
“But since everyone is hungry, it must be OK . . .” said the first.
“Because no one has more than anyone else,” stated the second.
“Our fathers fought for equality, and now we all benefit from it,” boasted the third.
“I would prefer to be equally rich, not equally poor,” said Ninoh as we left them to their balloons.
We had no clue where to go and what to do next. Above all we were hungry. Very hungry. Figs didn’t last long.
“I have an idea,” said Ninoh. “Let’s become street performers. We’ll sing and dance and people will put money in our hats.”
This was the single greatest idea I ever heard. I had always wanted to be a street musician. And a fighter pilot, and a world-champion wrestler, but street musician was my all-time favorite.
The important part was to select instruments and decide what to play and sing. I found an old saucepan and a bucket, and instantly became a drummer. Ninoh found a rusty chainsaw, which is also a great musical instrument, she said. We wandered into a small square with a lot of pedestrians, put Ninoh’s hat on the ground to hint to passersby that we want to be paid for our music, and gave it a try.
Ninoh played the chainsaw and sang a tragic ballad about an Amazon boy who wanted to be a girl, because his people were at war and only an Amazon Lady could become a warrior. When the enemy attacked his own village, the boy disguised himself and joined the battle, where he fought well and died honorably. His comrades, who learned he was a boy only then, buried him with full military honors appropriate for a Lady and a hero.
People strolled by, ignoring us completely, and Ninoh’s hat remained empty. She tried another song, about a girl who dreamed about becoming rich and marrying several husbands—one to care for the property, another to cook and clean, one to curl her hair and prepare her gowns, another to sing and dance for her. It was a pretty melody, but I wasn’t sure I liked the words.
I did a few acrobatic exercises, and then we staged a realistic sword fight. That got their attention. Coins began piling up in the hat. At this point I offered anyone interested to try to punch me in the face. One boy tried, but I moved aside and when he lost his balance I pushed him over with one finger, like in the Aikido beginner’s books. The boy fell, but wasn’t upset and tossed some coins into the hat. From then on, dozens of eager local champions wanted to either fence with Ninoh or beat me up. Very soon Ninoh’s hat was full of coins, and our performance ended to roaring applause. It was about time we got something to eat.
We found a 24-hour restaurant that looked clean and inexpensive. The owner rushed to greet us, gesturing to two girls wearing aprons. The man took our order and communicated it to the girls using some kind of sign language. We thought they were deaf mutes, but from the kitchen we heard them giggling and talking to each other in a language unknown to us.
Ninoh placed her hat full of coins on the table and casually asked the owner where his waitresses were from. He smiled at the money and told us the girls had been born here, but their families had emigrated from Karakuba Island. He saw that we didn’t understand and gave us a quick history lesson.
About two hundred years ago, a famine devastated Karakuba Island and many Karakubians came to the People’s Island, looking for honest work. At that time, manual labor was a big problem on the People’s Island. No one wanted to be a maid, gardener, trash collector or sewer worker. In other words, no one wanted to do the dirty work.
The Karakubians were eager to accept such jobs, but the People’s government hesitated. They feared that the next generation of Karakubians would become as educated as themselves and reject manual labor jobs. They needed a long-term solution to their problem, and they found it in their First Law of Equality. What one has, all must have.
So the People’s government generously accepted the Karakubians. They settled them in specially built housing “projects” and arranged for their children to be educated in their own language through high school, just as the People’s Island children studied in their native tongue. The Karakubian language was very different, and as a result the next generation was unable to enter colleges or universities, or aspire to well-paid professions. The Karakubians shopped and gathered and worshipped where their own language was spoken, ate in restaurants that served their traditional foods, read Karakubian newspapers and magazines, and enjoyed their own radio and TV channels.
“And so the labor problem was solved forever,” the owner finished proudly. I saw Ninoh’s eyes flash as her hand toyed with her sword. I too felt angry, and sad and confused. And hungry.
Just then the two girls served our food, which looked and smelled wonderful. We were about to dig in when the door opened and six people entered the restaurant. Leading them was a very tired-looking man with a stack of papers and a pen in his hands. Then came a tall woman and a rather small man, both wearing uniforms with large “EQ” insignia. They were followed by an enormous girl in a short skirt who was licking a big lollipop. Last came two men wearing huge “Care & Share” buttons on their jackets. The whole group ignored the other patrons and stopped in front of our table.
“Are you the street performers who just made a fortune on our city’s street corners?” asked the tired man in a tired voice.
“Yes, we are,” I answered, “but we only made enough money for this meal and a room for the night.
The man sighed again. “Can I see your license?”
“What license?” we chorused.
Sigh. “License to play and sing on the streets of our island.”
We didn’t have such a license. We didn’t have any license.
Sigh. “Then the People’s government will confiscate your musical instruments.”
We asked what “confiscate” means. He sighed and said it means taking them from us as a fine. We said OK. The man looked at the old saucepan and the rusty chainsaw and decided not to confiscate them. He said he would take us to prison instead. Ninoh clapped her hands and asked when meals were served there. He thought for a moment, then silently reached into Ninoh’s hat, picked up a couple of coins and disappeared. He left behind a piece of paper with “License” scrawled on it.
I saw Ninoh’s jaw tighten and decided I’d better try to keep her out of such conversations in the future. The last thing we need on the People’s Island is a couple of dead officials.
“Greetings.” The woman in uniform immediately took charge. “We are the Equal Opportunity watch patrol. Do you have disabled citizens in your performance troupe?”
We thought for a moment and told her that we had none in our performance troupe. Actually, we didn’t even know that we were a performance troupe.
“Then you are breaking the law,” the woman stated. “Our glorious People’s Island requires every organization, company and business to hire disabled citizens.” She was very businesslike and absolutely serious. The little man who came with her smiled with the nicest smile you ever saw. The hugely oversized girl stood behind them, gazing into empty space, still licking her lollipop.
Ninoh took a deep breath, but before she could offend these strange yet pleasant people, I spoke up. “What we can do in order to abide by the law that we didn’t know we were breaking?”
“I like your approach,” the woman replied. She glanced at the little man who, wearing the same wide and honest smile, took a handful of coins from Ninoh’s hat and put them into a heavy bag that bore the EQ insignia.
Ninoh looked at me through narrowed eyes as she picked up her table knife and began to play with it. In the hands of a deadly expert, tableware can be very dangerous.
“Now that you have paid the fine,” the woman said, “Let me introduce you to the newest member of your troupe,” she said. “Agroma, come closer.” The oversized girl obeyed, still licking her candy. “This is Agroma. Her brain is damaged but she understands simple commands like ‘go’ . . .” Agroma turned away. “Stop!” ordered the woman. Agroma stopped. “Turn.” Agroma turned back to us. “You must be very precise when giving Agroma commands,” said the woman.
“Excuse me,” I said, “But what will we do with her? I mean, with Agroma? I’m not sure it’s a good idea to entrust complete strangers with such a precious little girl . . . she is precious to someone, right?”
“Ours is an equal opportunity Island. What one has, all must have.” The woman pointed at Ninoh. “For example, she has a singing talent, but why should only talented people perform? That is inequality. Untalented people must also have a chance to perform. Everyone wants their share of fame and ovation . . . do you understand?” Just to make her happy. I said yes.
“Agroma, sing,” ordered the woman, and Agroma stopped licking the lollipop for the first time and obeyed the command. If that was singing, then I’m the world’s greatest tenor. And I’m not. I don’t know what that noise was, other than truly terrible and very loud. All the other diners in the restaurant immediately put their fingers in their ears, and some even ran out.
Ninoh was clearly amused. I hadn’t seen her enjoy anything this much since she’d had her sword at the Supreme Lady’s throat. At the same time I was totally puzzled. Why would anyone want to listen to Agroma’s singing, let alone pay her for it? But I wanted to abide by the laws of the Island, so I agreed to take Agroma as an “equal partner of our performance troupe.” The woman took our newly received license and stamped it “EQ.”
“Display it in a public place,” she said, and left, followed by the still-smiling little man.
Then one of the Care & Share men spoke. “Don’t you know that you’re supposed to pay taxes on all profits?”
“Every person who earns money shall give a part of it to the government,” stated the other.
“Why?” I really wanted to understand why people pay taxes.
“The government hires police officers to protect us the people from hoodlums and thieves, and buys cars and guns and bullets for them,” said the first man, expertly lifting a coin from the hat.
“The government hires soldiers to protect us the people from enemies, and buys tanks and planes and ships and weapons for them,” said the other, and lifted another coin.
“The government hires radio announcers to announce that our Island is the best island in the world.” First man, third coin.
“The government built a wonderful palace for all the poor people to visit from time to time to feel what it is to be rich.” Second man, fourth coin. The coins were diminishing very quickly.
“Stop!” Ninoh struggled to control her temper. “Now, I understand paying soldiers and police officers, but why should I have to pay for the radio announcer? If this is such a great island, people will hear about it even without a radio. On the other hand, announcing that this is the greatest island in the world makes me suspicious. All the crooks on my island were always announcing that they were very honest and honorable people; that’s how we knew they were crooks. Besides, I want to have some money left to pay for my dinner.”
“Very selfish, thinking only of your own needs,” muttered one of the men. “You’re obviously foreigners. You’re not from Shark Island, are you? God forbid! You must always remember that some people have no food at all—and you must never forget that what one has, all must have.”
“But nobody else worked to earn my money,” Ninoh protested angrily. “I sweated for hours on the street so I could pay for a meal and a bed. Instead, I had to pay a fine for not having a license, and a fine for not having a disabled person in our ‘performance troupe.’ And now I have to pay for building a palace so poor people can see what it’s like to feel rich? And give my money to people who didn’t work at all?? Absolutely not!”
“Sounds like individualism, opportunism, capitalism, and above all—treason!” one man told his partner. “Ought to take them both down to the police station.”
“Wait a second,” said the restaurant owner. “They ordered this food but didn’t pay for it yet. They can’t leave without paying.” He swept the remaining coins from the hat into his pocket as the three waitresses watched indifferently from the kitchen door.
One Care & Share man told the other, “Since they paid for this food with money that belongs to the government, this food belongs to the government as well.”
“And who is the government?” asked the other.
They answered in unison—“We are!”—and promptly helped themselves to our dinner.
The table knife flew from Ninoh’s fingers like a lightning bolt and stuck deep in the door frame, inches from the face of the frozen-in-fear restaurant owner. The three waitresses giggled. I grabbed Ninoh’s hand and dragged her out of the restaurant, afraid she’d remember the sword on her belt. We ran for several blocks, Ninoh complaining that I didn’t let her talk to those people her way. Exactly what I was trying to avoid!
Hearing a Care & Share man shout, “Do you have licenses to carry those swords?” gave me the strength to run even faster. Ninoh was still complaining loudly when she suddenly recalled that she is a titled Lady, and has the legal right to kill men if she pleases. And killing a couple of men would please her a lot; she was quite sure about that. I tightened my grip on her hand.
We stopped running when we reached the other side of the town. As we caught our breath we looked around, and saw a man standing on a small stage on a street corner talking loudly to a small crowd of people. The sandwiches they were eating held our attention. Near the stage was a table piled with food, and Ninoh and I quickly joined the waiting line. At last a smiling woman greeted us and asked, “Would you like roast beef or grilled cheese? Or maybe you prefer tuna on wheat, or sausages on a roll?” We preferred tuna, grilled cheese and sausages. “Go to the table and sign the petition, and you’ll get a sandwich of your choice,” she told us. We signed an official-looking document and received two large sandwiches. Life again looked bright and wonderful.
We noticed a small group of men who were sitting on the pavement, enjoying their free meal, and joined them. Halfway through our sandwiches, I asked the men exactly what it was we had signed. One said he thought we had enlisted to fly to Mars; another said no, we had demanded that Jingle Bells become the national anthem; and the third was positive we had petitioned the government to train cats to bark and dogs to meow.
The sandwich lady approached us. “Newcomers, are you interested in making some pocket change?” We were very much interested. “Great! At eight o’clock we need people to demonstrate in favor of making lemonade our national drink, and at nine-thirty we need people to rebel against it. Tomorrow, we’ll need about a dozen people to throw tomatoes at a mezzo- soprano in the National Opera.”
We immediately agreed. Demonstrations, protests, hurling tomatoes at opera singers, meeting new people, making friends, having fun and getting paid for it! We asked the woman what this wonderful profession is called.
And that’s how Ninoh and I became Vocal Minorities. For several days we took part in street protests, public outcries, stone throwing, cheering one speaker and booing another. Then we were hired to boo the same speaker we had cheered only the day before.
One day a guy by the name of Miki asked us to step outside for a serious talk. “You both are great Vocal Minorities,” he said with a big smile. “It’s about time you move to the next level. Community Organizers. Together we will change life on this Island, and make it even better. The crazies on Shark Island want to make poor people richer; not a very smart task, if you ask me. It can take years. Where’s the money, after all? Rich people have plenty, right? So why look for it elsewhere? We’ll take money from the rich—they don’t need that much anyhow—and give it to the poor, saving a bit for ourselves. Which way is quicker and easier, in your humble opinion?”
In our humble opinion it would be much easier to take from the rich and divide it up than to try to make everyone rich. He was a hundred and twenty percent right.
Miki continued, his smile even bigger. “All people in the Thousand Islands Empire will be even more equal than now and we, the Community Organizers, shall be first among equals. How would you like to be among the makers of history?”
We told Miki we’d like it a lot, and immediately joined his band of Community Organizers. I thought about telling Hugh when we finally found him, and I knew he’d be really proud of me.
Next day about a dozen of us Community Organizers went to a huge toy store. Miki went directly to see the owner of the store and, when he returned, told us that he’d demanded money and toys for children who fail in school. He explained that children who get good grades already feel good about themselves, but children who fail suffer. “They must be helped, those poor kids who had other, more interesting things to do than homework—and were held back, oppressed and degraded, by the elitist school system.”
Miki then told us the owner, an evil octopus of a man, had not only refused to share his wealth with suffering kids, but also kicked him out of his office. “Now,” Miki said, “we will start working on behalf of the oppressed and degraded children.” And we went to work.
First we entered the store and began frightening the children who were wandering through the store. Ninoh and I objected, but Miki explained that our goal is so important that, even if we sometimes do things that are a bit offensive, the result absolutely justifies the means. He added that the good of all oppressed children matters much more than any one scared child. Or two. Or three.
Children in the store began to cry and their mothers quickly took them away. When Miki released three mice he’d brought along and we all started yelling, “Rats! Rats!” most of the women shoppers disappeared. Then Miki yelled, “Fire, fire!” and ran out of the store, followed by the Community Organizers and the last few shoppers.
Ten minutes later three police officers showed up. They entered the empty store, talked to the owner and came out again. Miki was standing in front of our group, and the officer in charge spoke directly to him. “You’re disrupting operations of the store.”
Miki smiled genially. “We’re holding a peaceful demonstration on behalf of the struggling children of the world. Here is our permit,” and he produced a piece of paper that looked like a banknote. The officers examined the “permit” before it magically disappeared into one of their pockets.
“Remember, comrades,” Miki told us after the officers left, “Socialism is the future of the world. We are just because we are right!” He thought for a moment and added, “I just came up with our new slogan. ‘We have a right because we are right.’” He liked it. So did we. It feels good to be right.
For the rest of the day we patrolled the store’s entrance, telling customers things like “The prices are twice as high as the store’s across the street,” or “There’s a huge spider’s nest in there, and we’re waiting for the exterminator.”
Several times the owner came out of his office, looked around his empty store and went back in. When he came out at the end of the day, Miki loudly said, “All right, people, your group will be here this week; next week we’ll bring replacements.” The owner caught Miki’s eye and motioned with his head to come in. I watched through the window and saw the owner give Miki a fat envelope.
When he rejoined us, Miki announced that the operation had been very successful, and the owner had agreed to regularly support poor and oppressed students. “I’ll return on the first of each month and receive the same amount of support as today,” he said, then opened the envelope and handed each of us a banknote. I noticed there were plenty more left. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll demand food for starving off-Islanders.” Our first day as Community Organizers was over.
The next day we went to a huge supermarket. Miki was wearing new and very expensive shoes, and a ring with a large diamond. We all cheered; we loved our leader, who would guide us to a better future. Miki went into the manager’s office and in a short while came out with a huge black spot under his eye. “We had a very constructive talk,” he said. “It turns out they already give a lot to charities. But I have another great idea how to help the poor and struggling.” Miki never ran out of ideas when the needy were concerned. “You two”—he pointed at me and Ninoh—“come with me.”
“I plan to become the mayor,” Miki told us proudly. “You will be my right and left hands. Step one is to go from store owner to city engineer, from peddler to electrician, from fireman to college professor, and ask them what they want to change in this town. Then you report to me what they said. Then we move on to step two.”
Fascinating! We immediately went to work.
The street cleaners, I reported to Miki, told me that they want less traffic. They are tired of cleaning streets and washing walls.
Ninoh reported that several store owners want more traffic. They want to sell more goods and get more money so they can pay their staffs and suppliers, the rent, and the street sweepers.
The balloon sellers, I told Miki, want plenty of clear weather, because people buy more balloons on sunny days.
The owners of the game arcade, Ninoh said, want as much rain as possible, because more children and their parents come to play on rainy days.
The Tigers, a local soccer team, and their fans told me they want to beat the Panthers by ten points every match, while the Panthers and their followers told Ninoh they want the Tigers to lose every match by ten points.
Most of the kids in town wanted a new game station every month, I was happy to report; their parents all wanted the game manufacturer to go bankrupt, Ninoh added.
“Miki,” I said, “are you for more traffic or less traffic? If you want more traffic, the street cleaners won’t vote for you.”
“But if you’re for less traffic, the store owners won’t vote for you,” said Ninoh.
“If you say you’re for the Tigers, you’ll make Panthers’ fans angry. If you say you’re for the Panthers, you’ll piss off Tigers’ fans. You can’t use the information we collected; we failed you,” I ended miserably.
“You can’t force manufacturers to make more products or to go bankrupt,” added Ninoh. “I’m afraid we weren’t much help, and I’m sorry.”
“We’re both sorry,” I agreed. “We really wanted to help.”
“You know nothing about politics,” laughed Miki. “Watch me. Politics is the most fascinating game in town. It beats everything else, including soccer, blackjack and play stations.
Miki led us into the neighborhood and started at a candy store. “You want more people coming to this street,” Miki told the owners of the store, “and we will do everything possible to increase traffic. But you know that many lazy people don’t want to work, they just want to lie around and wait for hard-working people like you and me to feed them, those no-good do-nothings! If they knew that we agree with you, they’d never vote for me to become the new mayor, right? So, when I talk about changes I’ll bring to this town as mayor, I’ll really be talking about increasing traffic. It’ll be our little secret. Are you with me, comrades?”
The store owners were very sympathetic and agreed to come to the square to hear what Miki had to say.
Next we went to the street cleaners. “Those capitalistic pigs in the shops,” Miki told them, “want more and more traffic on this street. More and more people will come here, and leave trash all over and paint graffiti on the walls, making your lives miserable. The store owners care about their own pockets, not about hard-working people like us! I will keep people off this street. It will be my first goal as your new mayor. My second goal will be to reduce your work hours and increase your pay. What do you think of my plan?”
The street cleaners loved it. “But,” Miki added, “If the store owners knew my real agenda, do you think they’d vote for me? Not a chance! We need to keep it a secret. I will talk about change, and only you will know what I’m really talking about. The others won’t have a clue. Come to my big rally!”
The delighted street cleaners promised to come and bring their families, and we left them. As we followed our leader, Ninoh spoke up. “Hey, Miki, you probably didn’t realize it, but you told the store owner and the street cleaners two very different things. Quite opposite, actually.”
Miki laughed at her. “That is what we call politics. telling people what they want to hear. I told you, comrade, this is a game, and a fascinating one. You’ll come to love it, as I do.”
And so we told the Tigers that we’d take care of the Panthers, and that would be the change promised to the voters. To the Panthers Miki vowed to care of the Tigers, the change he would really be talking about. He told the bakers he’d make sure the price of bread would rise, and to the steel mill workers he promised lower prices for basic necessities, including bread. He told fishermen there would be more fish in the rivers, and told girls who had no dates that they’d all have boyfriends in time for the prom. And he assured everyone he said what they want is the change he’d be talking about.
At the announced time a large crowd filled the square. All of our Community Organizers were there as well. Miki stood on an empty barrel, waving and smiling. “Do you want change?” he asked the crowd.
“Yes!” they responded.
“Do you want the change?” Miki shouted.
“Yes!” they yelled back.
“Change! Change! Change!” The Community Organizers started chanting and the crowd joined in, becoming more and more enthusiastic. “Change, change, change!”
“Let’s go to City Hall,” Miki roared, “to City Hall, and show them that we want change!”
Community Organizers shaped the column and handed out flags and signs, and everyone marched off down the street, chanting “Change, change, change!” at the top of their lungs.
“I don’t feel like going with them,” Ninoh said. I didn’t either.
Sick and Cured
At that moment an old couple stopped near us. The man was in a wheelchair, which the woman had been pushing down the street. “We wanted to go too, but it’s so difficult for me,” the woman said rather breathlessly. “And since you’re here, I wanted you to clarify something for my husband. That nice person who was talking, he told me personally that if he is elected mayor, there will be many more soap operas on TV. But my stupid husband thinks that he told him personally—who would talk to him!—that he will make sure there will be fewer soap operas and more sports. Please tell my husband how wrong he is.”
The husband barely allowed her to finish the sentence. “You’re the stupid one,” he said very loudly. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
The wife turned and hit him with her purse on the head. “You hurting him,” I tried to stop her. She pushed the wheelchair over my feet and I felt sharp pain.
“I’d kill someone who called me stupid,” said Ninoh sharply, “but he’s an invalid, and it’s not a fair fight.”
“Who’s an invalid?” shouted the wife. “He just pretends he can’t walk in order to get government assistance. He’s been sitting in this chair for ten years just to get a pitiful compensation, the moron!”
“Who’s the moron?” the husband shouted back. “You think I can’t stand? Can’t walk? Can’t get you, you old witch?” Suddenly he jumped out of the chair and chased her down the street, both of them howling insults and shuffling along as fast as they could.
“Ninoh,” I said quietly, “something happened to my foot. I can’t walk.”
After giving me a thorough examination, Ninoh went for help and soon returned with good news. Medical care on the People’s Island was free to all, and we were right in front of a National Healthcare office. Ninoh helped me into the old man’s wheelchair (no one came back to claim it) and pushed me into the reception room. It was completely filled with people waiting to see a doctor. At the door we were given a number. 278. We asked what number was next to see the doctor and were told, “Eleven.”
Some people in the waiting room were dozing off while others slept outright. An old man lay on the floor, looking like he died a long time ago. Two people had bleeding wounds, someone was having heart attack, and a young woman was clearly about to give birth. “When did the doctor start receiving patients?” Ninoh wondered. “Day before yesterday,” said a panicking man, apparently the husband of the woman in childbirth.
An old woman who clutched the number 20 in both hands spoke up. “Our government takes care of us. On other islands you can die and no one cares, but when you die on the People’s Island, the government pays attention.” She was very proud of that. “On all the other islands, medicine and care cost a lot of money. We’re lucky; we have equal treatment for everyone, and it costs us nothing.” She was very proud of that, too. I was glad that treatment would be free, if I ever got it.
After about two hours, number nineteen was called. I calculated that, at this rate, I’d see the doctor in about sixty-four hours and forty-five minutes—if the doctor worked day and night without breaks or interruptions. The pain in my feet was worse, and to my great shame I found myself wishing that some of the people waiting ahead of me would die.
I noticed that some people who came in after us went in to see the doctor without a number. Must be an emergency, I thought. But then again, there were several people in the waiting room whose conditions were quite serious, and no one rushed to help them. Then I watched a man enter the waiting room, look around, and quietly discuss something with the receptionist. Then something changed hands, he got his number, and went directly into the doctor’s office.
The proud old woman quietly offered to exchange numbers with me, for humanitarian reasons— and a modest amount of money. “But you’ll be in line forever,” I protested. “Not to worry,” she said, “I have no better place to go. Besides, this is how I make my living. Get a number, sit here, exchange with someone who came later, get a little money for it, wait again, exchange with someone who came later. Not a bad job, if you ask me. I know people who work much harder for much less.”
I gave her several of the coins Miki had given us and soon entered the doctor’s office. He was the rudest doctor I ever met. Before I could even open my mouth, he was yelling that I was wasting his valuable time. He didn’t greet me or ask me to sit down or undress or anything, just snapped, “What do you want?”
“Did you bring bandages?” he demanded when I showed him the deep bruises and cuts across my feet. When I said no, he angrily asked if I’d brought iodine. Again, no. “So what did you bring? How do you expect me to help you, you moron?”
I was glad Ninoh wasn’t here. I knew what would happen if someone was this rude to me in her presence. As calmly as I could, I asked the doctor what should I do.
“Keep the wound open and blow air on it,” he said. “Hot air?” I asked. “Why should I care?” he snarled, and disappeared behind the inner door. I went out and the next person in line rushed in.
“What did he say?” Ninoh asked anxiously. “Blow air on the wound,” I groaned.
Out on the street we practically ran into Miki. He seemed very happy. “I’ve been looking all over for you two! We have important task to accomplish.” Then he noticed I was limping and asked what happened, so we told him the whole story about the crazy couple and the mad doctor.
“What did you do?! You went to wait in line with all others?” Miki seemed truly astonished. “Let’s go.”
We turned the corner and entered a door with no sign on it. Miki knocked and spoke to someone behind the door. Seconds later we entered a posh waiting room with soft armchairs, where well- dressed receptionist immediately offered us an assortment of beverages and chocolates. I felt better already. Then Miki took several bills from his pocket and gave them to the receptionist, who disappeared. In a moment a nurse in a crisp white uniform came out and ushered me into a medical office. It was everything the first office wasn’t. clean and comfortable, with modern equipment, soft lights, even background music. The nurse finished gently washing my feet just as the doctor entered.
It was the very same doctor I’d seen ten minutes ago. I suddenly realized I was in the same medical office I was before, but on the other side of the inner door. The doctor looked the same but behaved like a different person entirely. He delicately touched my feet, murmuring “We’ll have this taken care of it in no time” as he gathered the necessary medical supplies. Soon my foot was tightly bandaged, and all the while the doctor smiled and chatted very pleasantly. Then we heard noises from the adjacent room. The doctor politely apologized and excused himself; through the inner door I heard him yelling at some poor patient. Then he returned, once again the embodiment of consideration and attentiveness. “What a nice man!” Ninoh said as we left the clinic.
Miki wanted us to know what had happened at the rally. There were hundreds of people, he said, and all of them gave him money so he could run for mayor. Then the mayor himself appeared and gave him money not to run. “We can keep this up for the rest of our lives,” Miki said, laughing with pure joy. “It’s so easy. And fun, too! But,” he added, suddenly serious, “I found where we really can make a difference and at the same time become rich beyond imagination. It’s called global warming. This is the best game of all. It’s a hoax, but impossible to disprove. You and I, together, we’ll be invincible!”
I cleared my throat. “Miki, there is no we, no us. Ninoh and I can’t stay here forever. I came to the archipelago to look for my friend Hugh, and Ninoh is helping me. We have to go. You’re a nice guy, but we don’t like everything you’re doing.”
“Listen, you two,” Miki said firmly, “I’m not taking no for an answer. And what can you possibly not like? I’m doing exactly what everybody else on this Island is doing, only much better.”
“Personally,” Ninoh said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that you are the scum of the earth. And if you say that your behavior is acceptable on this island, and I tend to believe you, then this island is the scum of the earth as well. Don’t you think that’s a good enough reason for us to leave?” Her hand rested lightly on the hilt of her sword, and Miki decided this time to take “no” for an answer.
8. Shark Island
We walked for about two hours and finally reached the border of the infamous Shark Island. The customs officer of the People’s Island of Justice and Equality stopped us, saying no one was allowed to leave, but after Ninoh slipped him a silver coin he let us go. Like the other borders, there was a stream of water with armed guards standing behind it.
“Sorry, no entry without authorization,” the commanding officer briskly informed us.
“All the other islands we’ve visited don’t allow people to get out. You, on the other hand, don’t let people come in. Why?”
“Too many people trying to get in,” said the officer. “There’s not enough space here.”
“Why do they all want to come to Shark Island?” Ninoh asked.
“Beats me,” shrugged the officer. “We have so many problems here. The whole Island is in financial trouble, the housing market crashed, and good jobs are scarce. We have seventeen political parties that are always unhappy about something. The price of carrot juice almost doubled over the last ten years. There are way too many choices in the stores and kids watch TV all the time. Pollution is destroying our air and water and land. Twenty years ago, life here was much better. Oh yes, people come to our hospitals. They say they’re the best in the Empire, but they’re very expensive. Our schools and universities are also excellent, but again, who can afford them? Of course, the government sponsors the best students, but not everyone is good enough. Get my drift?”
I looked around and then at Ninoh. “Want to check it out?”
“Not really. When people say their island is the best, it usually means that life there is scarcely bearable. But when they say it’s not so good, then it’s probably really, really bad.”
We walked downstream and soon reached the border of the Island of Love. From a distance I spotted my raft still tied to a pole in the marina, rolling and pitching on the waves. Another silver coin changed hands and Ninoh crossed the border. In a few minutes she had navigated my raft close to the delta, where I joined her. The raft was small but sturdy, and Ninoh was telling me how much she loved sea travel when she suddenly stopped paddling and became seasick. Luckily I soon saw a small island dead ahead of us.
9. The Ungrateful Pig’s Island
As the raft drew closer we could see that the small island had been evenly divided in two. The right half was beautifully landscaped. In the middle stood an elegant two-story house with marble columns, gleaming white against the dark green trees, flowering vines and rich lawns that surrounded it. The setting sun made it shimmer like a desert mirage.
The left half of the island was as dry and barren the other was lush and green, except for a few stunted, broken trees and patches of straggling weeds and grasses. I spotted a small building that looked like a very badly kept barn with its worn paint, broken windows and sagging doors. It was surrounded by broken furniture, torn mattresses, and rusted tools. Garbage was everywhere, some scattered, some in drifts and piles.
I jumped off the raft and pushed it through the surf onto the sand. Ninoh was helping me drag it up the beach when we heard a harsh voice: “Don’t move or I’ll fire.” We froze. My eyes moved to Ninoh; despite her weary posture, she was fully alert and ready to spring into action.
“Slowly now, raise your hands and turn around.” The voice belonged to a boy, two or three years older than me. He and another, slightly younger boy, both of them barefoot and dressed in rags, stood behind some scraggly trees not far inland, their guns pointed at us and their fingers on the triggers.
“Should we kill them?” the younger one asked eagerly.
After some consideration the older boy answered, “Only if they move. Otherwise Dad wouldn’t like it.”
I was glad to know their Dad didn’t like them killing people unless they moved. I decided not to move. Ninoh decided otherwise.
I never knew she could cry at will. She dropped to her knees and began bawling like a frightened child, making a real show of it. “Please, oh please,” she wailed as huge tears started down her cheeks. “Don’t kill us, I beg you! We are penniless orphans, and we’ve been traveling for so long . . . we mean you no harm, I swear! We’re so tired and hungry, we have no money, no weapons, and I’m so afraid of big, strong boys like you . . .” All the while she was inching toward them. If they see her sword we’re dead, I realized, but it had miraculously vanished from her belt.
“Oh, please, please!” I played along, trying to draw their attention away from Ninoh. “We will leave your Island today, immediately, only spare us, please, we’re so small and miserable and sick . . .” Thinking they had nothing to fear from a weeping little girl, the boys aimed their eyes and rifles directly at me.
My advice to anyone who might be thinking of pointing a gun at me: Keep one eye on Ninoh. As soon as she had crept close enough she sprang to her feet while throwing sand into the older boy’s face with one hand and grabbing his brother’s rifle with the other. As the older brother flailed around howling, the younger boy was dragged out from behind the tree and met with a kick into his groin, and down he went. A split second later his brother joined him on the sand, doubled over and gasping for air. I knew exactly how he felt; I got the same treatment when I met with Ninoh for the first time.
Ninoh scornfully turned her back on the whimpering boys and, quickly examining both rifles, found them to be “old junk, and badly kept.” She glanced back at her victims—one still lying on the sand and whining, the other leaning against a tree, hands on knees, head down—and gave them a valuable piece of advice. “Never point guns at people unless you can hold your own, boys.”
By this time the sun was sinking into the ocean, and lights were coming on in and around the elegant house and grounds. The breeze picked up and carried the faint sounds of music and many voices, as if a big party was starting. I suggested seeing if we could fill our stomachs over there, and was startled by the hatred in both boys’ eyes. “Go to your rich friends, then,” the older boy snarled as his brother spat at my feet. “One day we’ll get you, and then we’ll cheer and dance on your miserable graves!”
Ninoh turned to me and whispered, “Miserable kids,” then faced the older boy. “Where is your father? We’ll give the guns back to him, not to you.”
The boys sullenly headed for the barn, followed by Ninoh, the guns on her shoulders, then me. From inside a small crowd of boys and girls exited one by one and silently watched our procession, the same hatred burning in their eyes. There were at least eight of them, all with dirty clothes and faces. The truth is, we looked like we were from the same family. Then the parents came out. The father looked about sixty years old, with deep blue eyes and wrinkles all over his face and neck. Both boys stumbled when they saw him, but then moved closer to the family, heads down, and blended into the crowd. Ninoh and I stopped at a respectful—and safe— distance.
“Good evening, everyone,” I said cheerfully. “We’re sorry to intrude like this, but the children were playing with these rusty old guns and we thought it best to bring them all back safely.” I suddenly realized that the two boys were older than both Ninoh and I by at least a couple of years.
After a long moment the father spoke in a hard, cold voice. “Get off my property, and fast. You’re on the wrong side of the Island. Your host is waiting over there.”
Ninoh slowly laid the guns on the ground and we began to back away. “We’re not guests of any party,” she said. “We have no friends on this island. We’re looking for Hugh.”
A few seconds later the father spoke less harshly. “If you’re not friends with the people from the other side, you’re welcome here.”
The father’s name was Dik. After he invited us in, his family relaxed. The mother disappeared, and we didn’t see her for a long time. One of the kids told us she liked to lock herself in her room most of the time, drinking her favorite gin and listening to the radio. Another said she used to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, but now that gas was so expensive Father said she can’t go anymore.
Dik ordered food and we were given bread and cheese in the kitchen, which was more than OK with us. I wasn’t sure I liked the color of the water or the cleanliness of the glasses, but I kept my opinions to myself.
“I couldn’t help but notice that you have wonderful soil on this island,” Ninoh said between bites. “Why don’t you grow vegetables and fruits?”
Dik looked at us sharply. “Because everything was taken from us by the monsters,” he said.
“What kind of monsters? Sea monsters?” Ninoh was really excited. Having lived all her life on the Islands, she’d heard much about sea monsters yet never seen one.
“No, the worst kind of monsters,” Dik answered, “the kind that looks human but are monsters inside.” He turned to his children. “What will happen to the monsters when the time comes?”
“Death to the monsters!” the kids shouted in one voice, and kept chanting, “Death to the monsters! Death to the monsters!”
“And when will the time come?” he demanded, and roared the answer with them, “Soon! Soon! Soon!”
Dik got to his feet. “Come with me. I want to show you something.” The moon was already high and there was plenty of light outside. “Monsters live over there.” Dik pointed to the grand house on the green side of the island. The unseen orchestra played on, but now the house and lawns were adorned with balloons and streamers. “They’ll have about two hundred guests,” Dik said bitterly. “What they’ll eat tonight alone would feed my family for a year. And not simple food like ours, oh no; only the most expensive delicacies in the Empire for them! The money they spend on one party would buy food and medicine and gas for any family for at least three years. Monsters, I tell you!”
I didn’t know what to say, but Ninoh did. “We want to help you, but we don’t see how two poor orphans could . . .”
“I’ll tell you how,” Dik broke in eagerly, then shook his fist at the mansion. “At last, at last! Today will be the day—the day I restore my family’s dignity and happiness. But I can’t do it without your help!” We swore to do what we could. “Then come, time is precious. We can’t lose a single second.”
We followed him back inside, intrigued and puzzled. How could we help? Why was today the day? Why now, and what was next? This was turning into a real adventure, and both Ninoh and I were excited.
Dik literally cleared the cluttered kitchen table with one sweep of his arm and unrolled a building floor plan. “This is the monsters’ house, where my twin brother lives,” he spat. Ninoh and I mirrored surprise. “Yes, my twin brother, Kim, who destroyed my life.”
Rage and pain burned in his eyes as he told us his story. “When I was a very young man, I left home to explore our glorious Empire. Soon after, I learned that our father was dying. Our mother had passed away years before, so of course I rushed home immediately, but Father was already in his grave. Kim told me that all he’d left us, his only heirs, was this island and a little money, but I never saw our father’s will. Kim wanted to spend the money on a good education for both of us, but I was destined to see the world and enjoy the good life. I demanded and received my half of the money, and left home again.
“When I came back years later with my own family the island was as you see it, clearly divided. Well, half was mine by birthright, but no one asked me which half I wanted. The only place I could shelter my family was in this miserable shack, where my father’s seasonal workers used to live. I came back to wretched poverty only to find my twin a rich man. Said he’d earned his wealth, built a thriving business through hard labor and long hours and giving back to the community. Filthy liar! I am absolutely certain that our father left us a vast fortune, and that Kim stole my true inheritance! I never saw our father’s will, but I’ve always known it existed and now I know precisely where it is. I intend to take it and confront him, throw the truth in his face. But I had no way to get into my brother’s study. Until now. You two arrived at exactly the right time. You will go to the party as guests and get the will for me.”
He pointed at the floor plan. “Here is the main entrance, the stairs to the second floor, the bedrooms, and the study. We know where everything is, thanks to my oldest boys.” The sons who would’ve killed us if we moved beamed with pride. “My dear brother wanted so much to show off to us that he sent formal attire for my entire family. Tonight’s party is in celebration of his sixtieth birthday. Mine too, but I had no reason to celebrate—until now! At last, I will taste sweet revenge! I can hardly wait for my moment of triumph!”
Among the clothes Kim had sent we found some that fit us perfectly. I saw Ninoh for the first time in a ball gown; she looked beautiful, regal, every inch a Lady. It was hard to concentrate as she briefed me on how to walk, smile, shake hands, and answer questions without really saying anything. I vaguely heard something about the two boys creating a diversion while their father waited for our signal from the study window. “Be careful,” Dik warned us as we were leaving. “My brother is cunning and dangerous. He has no compassion, may God save his soul.”
So off we went on our secret mission. Once arrived we hid behind bushes, observing the situation. The grand house overlooked the shore, and a sturdy walkway and stairs led from a private pier up to the garden terrace. Some guests were arriving in boats, which were then moored by long-legged girls in short uniforms; others were making their way up to the garden, where the party was in full swing. We waited until no one was looking our way and in seconds were on the stairs behind an older couple who’d arrived in a huge boat along with a crew of catering staff. We all exchanged pleasantries and entered the garden. To our right an orchestra occupied a stage, on the left was the house itself. We glanced toward the main entrance. “No guards anywhere,” whispered Ninoh. “No obvious cameras either, so they probably have very sophisticated equipment. Say nothing; they might be listening, too.” We continued smiling and nodding as we entered the party.
I must confess, I don’t like alcohol. My parents forbade me to drink it, so of course I had to try it. When I was nine I tasted a dry red wine that I overheard my parents praise to their friends, and instantly hated it. Sometime later I gulped cognac from an open bottle and still can’t believe that any sane person would willingly drink such terrible tasting liquid. Then one New Year’s Eve my mom didn’t finish her champagne, but I did when she took the glasses into the kitchen. I liked the sweetness and the bubbles. Then I felt my head pleasantly swinging and decided to look for more. I found more in a bottle. I finished the bottle and for the first time understood what drunk really means. Some people black out when they’re drunk; I still remember every single detail and I’m still embarrassed. Hugh told me that he would never drink because alcohol interferes with one’s ability to think, and he wasn’t about to let anything interfere with his work. But Ninoh, who knew how to behave at high-society parties, had me get two glasses of champagne so we could pretend to be drinking and having a good time.
At one point I saw Kim; obviously Dik’s twin, but different. Something in how he carried himself and looked at people, how easily he smiled and laughed made him seem much more likable. Then I remembered what he did to his own blood and felt both anger and resentment rising. “Let’s go,” I urged Ninoh. “I can’t wait to see Dik crush his poisonous twin.”
We casually made our way to the back of the house. No one paid any attention to us. I carefully opened the back door, glanced at Ninoh, who was covering my escape route according to plan, and slipped into the house. First phase accomplished.
I slowly moved toward the kitchen where several chefs were preparing gorgeous platters of food. Waiters were moving in and out of the kitchen, to and from the garden. I pretended to have wandered in by mistake, and was ignored by all. I watched four boys in white uniforms practice moving a huge birthday cake with sixty candles on it. The pastry chef was giving them instructions. “Remember, when you hear the words, ‘We are brothers!’ we must immediately bring in the cake and sing the birthday song. One-two-three . . . We are brothers . . .move!”
Unnoticed, I entered the storage room where I slipped into a white chef’s jacket. We were counting on the catering staff thinking I was one of the house servants, who would assume I was on the catering staff. I took an empty tray and moved toward the stairs to the second floor. All the doors in the corridor were closed, except one, and from that room I heard voices. I moved closer and peeked inside. Kim was lying back in an armchair, his face pale and damp. A man stood at his side, taking his pulse; I assumed he was a doctor. A young woman stood behind the armchair, watching. “Dad,” she said tenderly, “you must take it easy. Grandfather was your age when he died worrying about his good-for-nothing son, and now you’re worrying about the very same person, your no-good twin. Please, please try to relax.”
“I hope Dik will come,” Kim said wearily. “I want to put this all behind us.”
“Pulse is returning to normal,” the doctor said. “Now listen, Kim. Don’t run, don’t drink, and don’t try to organize anything. You’re not twenty-five anymore, you know.” I tried to tiptoe past the open door and he spotted me. “Waiter, bring a glass of water, please.”
In less than a minute I was back with a glass of water. The doctor handed Kim a tablet, and I offered him the glass. He took it and smiled up at me. He had a wonderful smile that made you want to smile right back—which I did, thinking at the same time how deceptive appearances can be. This monster of a man was so likable. This is how his victims trusted him and he betrayed him, I thought. But today, today all will be illuminated!
At that moment something happened in the garden, where most of the guests were; we heard a lot of noise and then silence. We all looked out of the open window into the garden and saw that Dik’s whole family had crashed the party, rags and all. This was the distraction we had planned. “Oh, my God!” Kim gasped, “My brother has completely lost his mind!” The three of them rushed out of the room. The way to the second floor was now wide open. Dik had said the hall door to the study would be locked, and to break in through the balcony’s glass door. My task now was to reach that second-floor balcony, which happened to be directly above this room. I scrambled up the heavy vines and over the railing, broke the glass as quietly as I could and entered the study.
There was someone standing in the shadows.
My initial reaction was to run and jump off the balcony, but then I recognized Ninoh. “How did you get here?” I demanded hoarsely, both shaken and astonished.
She grinned at me. “I was waiting for you downstairs, but when everyone ran to see what was happening I figured it’d be safe to head for the study. The door was unlocked, so I came in looking for you. Didn’t Dik say it’d be locked and bolted?”
“Let’s hurry now,” I said, “and figure that out later.” We started searching for a safe or hiding place, but suddenly Ninoh signaled me over and silently pointed to a glass display case. Several items lay inside, like artifacts in a museum. A small locket with a woman’s face inside; a notebook opened at a page with the scrawled words “I love you, Dad”; an award for the most innovative business in the Empire, and an old document wallet. I was about to smash the glass but Ninoh stopped me. “Nothing is locked here,” she said and opened the lid. I grabbed the wallet; inside was an old and much worn document entitled “Last Will and Testament.”
“Got it! Let’s go.” We ran downstairs, through the main entrance and out toward the stage, where guests and staff alike crowded in silence, staring at something. We squeezed through them and found ourselves in the first row of spectators of the high drama that was unfolding. Dik stood on one end of the stage, Kim on the other. The crowd remained silent. Kim was saying “Dik, don’t do anything you’ll regret later. Tell your boys to put their guns away.” That’s when I noticed Dik’s two boys standing near the stage, their guns aimed at the crowd. Nobody said anything about any guns. Dik noticed me, and his eyes asked yes or no. I silently answered yes. His eyes flashed and he turned to face his brother.
“We are twins,” he stated, “and today is our birthday. One of us is rich, with many influential friends, his life full of pleasures and treasures. The other is poor, with only a bleak, hard road ahead for himself and his children. How did this happen? Who is to blame? That’s what I want to know, brother—what I will know! You have a judge among your guests.” Dik whirled to face his stunned audience. “I demand that Your Honor come up here on stage and hear both my side of the story and my brother’s side.” He turned back to Kim. “And make his judgment in front of all these people, our guests.”
A dignified gentleman in his sixties came closer to the stage. “What do you say, Kim?”
“Be my guest, Leo,” Kim answered calmly.
The judge turned to Dik. “Under one condition. No guns.”
“Agreed.” Dik turned to his sons, but they didn’t have guns anymore. One was in Ninoh’s hands, the other in mine. Both boys were on the ground, gasping for air, victims of another secret punch Ninoh had shared with me.
“Here they are, Your Honor,” Ninoh sang out. “We took the cartridges out.” The judge nodded and ascended the stage. “Proceed, Dik.”
“You all know that our father was a rich man,” Dik stated, “and that I traveled while my brother stayed home. When father died, I rushed to his side only to receive a pitiful amount; a pittance that my brother said was my half of the estate. At that time I was young and stupid, I didn’t check any papers and I left. When I came back ten years later, my brother was building this house, owned a big business and was the talk of the town. I demand to know how that happened!”
The judge looked at Kim. “Do you want to say anything?”
Before Kim could speak, a gentleman in his seventies came forward. “I want to respond, if I may, Your Honor,” he said firmly. “I remember when Kim first came to our college. I’m retired now, but when I met him I was a full professor and an advisor to the entrance board. Kim’s brilliant score earned him a scholarship, and for four years he was our top student. The best and the brightest. And for four years he worked evenings and sometimes nights to support himself. I was a dean for many years and I never saw a more determined and hard-working student than Kim.”
“He conned you, like so many others,” Dik snarled. “He told you he didn’t have any money just to get a scholarship. He lied to you like he lied to me. You’ve been taken advantage of, and I will prove it.”
A female voice interrupted sharply. “He sure didn’t look like he had any money, judge.” A woman in her sixties approached the stage, eyes flashing. “Many years ago when my husband was alive we had a small business making bathroom accessories. We needed a janitor to work evenings, you know, cleaning and stocking up for tomorrow’s shift, taking care of small problems like plumbing, things like that. This guy shows up,” she pointed at Kim, “says he’s going to be studying at the engineering college, and he needs a job and has no money to rent a room. We hired him, and it was the best business decision we ever made. In two months he comes to my husband and says he can show us a way to double our profit. Well, his invention looked good, and my husband asks what he wants in return. And he says, ‘I’ll be very proud if you’ll implement my first engineering project.’
“And it worked like a charm. We gave him higher salary plus five percent of the profit we made with his invention. Within two years he had completely remodeled our operations. He was still in college, but he practically ran our shop. We had so many orders, we had to move to a larger space. And then to an even larger space. Our brand became famous on many islands, and we started two new lines of luxury products. Then Kim graduated and received an offer from a larger firm. We decided to offer Kim fifty percent of our business, and he stayed with us. He took over and made ours the leading company in the market. And when my husband passed away, I told Kim it was his company. We didn’t have children, and I wanted to just give it to him, but he paid me every cent of what my husband’s share was worth. He said, ‘Give it to a charity, auntie.’ He calls me his aunt and I’m proud of that. That’s all I wanted to say.” She sent Kim a kiss and blended back into the crowed.
“This is so easy,” Dik laughed. “He knew you had no children, and he played you like a flute. But when his own blood came to him, his own brother whom he could get nothing from, where was he? Sorry, ma’am, I don’t buy your story.”
“Excuse me, sir,” spoke up a man in his late forties. “But I remember clearly that I was hired by your brother to remodel the guest house on your half of the island. Kim ordered us not only to rebuild it, but also deliver furniture and appliances and even stock your refrigerator and pantry. Your brother paid for everything, as I recall.”
“Thank you for reminding me,” Dik sneered.” Yes, he repaired that shed that our father used to house his seasonal workers. Thank you very much.” He spat his disgust. “Guest house, indeed! You can have it; we all get sick just looking at it! Besides, it’s too small for us. With my wife’s two brats from her first marriage and our own kid, we had to cram five people into three tiny bedrooms! Where’s the justice in that? How many rooms are in this grand mansion?!”
“But Dik,” Kim spoke up for the first time, “I offered you a job. I brought you to the shop and offered you a good . . .”
“And what did you offer to pay me?” Dik cut in. “You were making tons of money, and you offered to pay me what? Same as the cleaning guys?”
“Dik,” Kim sighed, “you didn’t know anything; you were worth exactly what cleaning people received, even less to be honest . . .”
“Did you hear what he just said?” Dik shrieked to the judge.
His Honor spoke firmly. “Dik, if you want to find the truth, you have to give your brother a chance to speak.” He nodded at Kim to continue.
Kim sighed again. “I’d hoped you’d learn fast so I could give you a more important job. I remember at school, you constantly beat me in math and physics.”
“Don’t give me that crap,” Dik cried. “I’m not going to work for peanuts when my brother gets millions. My whole family got sick; we didn’t even have insurance. We had to beg for help from other people.”
“I remember you now!” A woman cried out from the back row of the crowd. “You and your first wife came to my office to apply for unemployment. I offered you several jobs, mostly manual as I recall. You said you were an artist, and that your wife was too sick to work. And I believe your second wife was also too sick to work.”
“Yes, my first wife left me,” Dik yelled. “Go ahead, rub it in! But her daughters stayed with me, and when one of them had a child she brought it to me. She had nowhere else to go. And now eleven people are forced to share the wonderful shed my brother so generously allowed us to live in.”
“And no one works,” continued the woman from the back row. “Yet you all eat and drink, have clothes and games, use electricity and water and gas, and go to doctors who prescribe very expensive medicine. How do you pay for all these things if no one works? Who gives you money? Why should anyone give you something for nothing?”
“The Government,” Dik asserted quickly. “They have to.”
“Why do they have to?” the judge interjected sharply. “Why should anyone give you anything? You are strong and healthy; therefore you can work. If your children can carry guns, they can carry something else to earn their living. I’m sure that among the eleven of you, there are at least another two or three others who can do something useful to bring bread to the table. The government earns no money of its own; it comes from the people. But why should the people support you, if you won’t even try to support yourself? You are the one demanding fairness and justice. Is it fair that hard-working people should pay your way?”
The woman had moved from the last row to the stage. “When you came to my office and were granted assistance as a native of this Island, did you even think about who was paying for your doctors and hospitals, your medicine and food stamps, your gas allowance and clothing? The only person who lived at the time on this island was your brother Kim with his family. He was the only one who made money on this island and paid taxes. It was to him we came to pay your bills. It was he who paid for all you received without working. So the government took his money and paid for your drug rehabilitation program, and your daughter’s maternity care, and your home repair bills, and your food stamps and energy assistance programs. Every cent came from your brother.”
“I don’t want this discussion to be about money,” Kim said quickly. “We’re family . . . ”
Dik again cut him off. “What a prince among men! We all should weep with love for him.” He spat again. “And now I will prove beyond any doubt that he had money when he came begging for a scholarship, that he had money when he wormed his way into your factory, that he was rolling in money when offered me a miserable job for next to nothing. And that all along the money wasn’t his, it was mine!” And Dik extended his hand to me. In the complete silence that followed, I took the old wallet from my jacket and handed it to him. He opened it, removed the folded paper and read in a loud, clear voice, “Last Will and Testament.” He held it up for all to see. “This is my late father’s will,” he said triumphantly. “I see it now for the first time in my life. It was kept from me, hidden away until today, but I finally have it in my hands. It says ‘My dear sons, I must confess, I have nothing to leave you’ . . .” He stopped short with a gasp, frozen in place, eyes bulging.
All was silence as the judge approached Dik and gently took the will from his hands. “Everything seems to be in order,” he announced after carefully examining the document. “Date, signatures, witnesses . . . let me read it to you . . . . Ahem! My dear sons, I must confess, I have nothing to leave you . . . I was ashamed to tell you, but I’m completely bankrupt . . . ” His voice trailed off and he looked at Dik, who stood there as if he’d just been struck by lightning.
“Look, Dik,” Kim said earnestly, “I’m truly sorry we’ve come to this. I really wanted you to succeed . . .”
“You’re lying! Lying!” Dik screamed. “Filthy liar! What about the money you gave me when I left?!”
“It was my own, what I’d worked for and saved for my college tuition,” Kim said softly. “But you needed it. When you came back you said that you hated our Island, and you had to be free to become a poet. You said the love of your life was waiting for you, and that you’d die if you couldn’t be with her. I thought that you probably wouldn’t accept my college money, so I said it was your half of the inheritance . . .”
“Shut up, you liar!” Dik was nearly foaming at the mouth. “I hate you, I hate you!” “But Dik,” Kim protested with tears in his eyes, “we are brothers! We are brothers!”
And at the arranged signal the kitchen boys appeared, carrying in the huge cake with all sixty candles aflame, singing “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” at the top of their lungs.
Ninoh and I exchanged an unspoken agreement and headed downstairs. We walked to the barn, changed into our own clothes and headed for our raft. When we got there Ninoh retrieved her sword from its hiding place.
“The worst thing is what that ungrateful pig did to his kids. They were brought up in hatred, and this will haunt them all their lives,” she said with a sigh, then added, “I wonder what your famous Hugh would say about all this.”
I thought for a moment. “He’d say, ‘You nailed it, Ni.’”
The moon was high and bright and we had no reason to stay a moment longer. “Next island?” Ninoh asked.
“Next island!” Together we pushed our raft into the ocean.
10. Democracy Island
Why we didn’t think about storms I don’t know, but we didn’t. This one took us completely by surprise. One moment everything was sunny, quiet and peaceful. Next moment everything was dark, cold rain poured from the skies, and the towering waves dwarfed our little raft. Using two boards we rowed desperately toward an island we’d spied during flashes of lighting. We were close to land when one especially frightening wave knocked me off the raft and dragged me deep into the water. When I came up gasping for air, the raft had disappeared. I hoped Ninoh would either navigate it toward the island or jump ship and swim to safety on land.
The storm ended as suddenly as it started. When I came ashore everything was peaceful and quiet again. There was no raft or Ninoh anywhere in sight. A huge sign reading “Democracy Island” stood on beach, but there were no signs of people or dwellings. I ran up and down the beach; nothing on the horizon, nothing on the shore. Exhausted and worried, I slumped down on the sand as anxious tears fell.
“What a sad boy,” a voice said sweetly. “Don’t worry, dear, everything will be fine.”
I turned to see an older couple standing behind me, holding hands. “Come with us, dear,” the woman said kindly. “We have dry clothes at home and good hot soup. It will help; I know from experience.”
“I lost my friend,” I blubbered. “I keep losing friends.”
I explained my situation as I followed them home. They lived in a small house that was surrounded by trees and cluttered with an assortment of things they’d found on the shore. “The sea brings us everything we need,” the woman said, stirring the soup simmering on the stove on the patio of their backyard, which was enclosed by thick bushes and a high fence. I asked her not to bother, but she insisted on serving me and then promised that, after I had eaten my fill, the three of us would search for Ninoh. I nodded and attacked the simple meal with gusto.
“Ours is a peaceful island,” the woman said sweetly. “May I have your sword while you are here? When you decide to leave, you may have it back.” I immediately handed it over, and she carried it inside the house. “It’ll be in there, hanging on the wall,” she said when she returned.
Her name was Jana, his Jan. “Ours is the most democratic island of them all,” she said with great pride. “Everything here is decided by a vote. For example, if Jan wants chicken soup and I want beef stew, we vote and do what the majority wants.”
I smiled and she laughed wholeheartedly. “I know why you’re smiling! There are only two of us, and if Jan wants soup and I want stew, no majority, right?” I instantly liked her. “Ah, but there’s a thing called compromise,” she continued. “If Jan wants soup, I say I will vote for soup if he will vote for finding and cutting firewood.”
“Sounds like blackmail, not compromise,” I said, smiling again. Jana nodded. “Yes, but compromise is a nicer word.”
“Of course,” Jana said sweetly. “But since ours is a total and absolute democracy, we must first take a vote. If the majority says go, we’ll go. Right, honey?” she turned to her husband and for the first time I heard Jan’s voice.
“Sure thing, honey, but I’m afraid there’s a slight legal problem.”
“Nonsense! The young man wants to go now. He doesn’t have time for your legal mumbo jumbo.”
“But we decided two-to-none that everything must be done democratically,” Jan objected.
“Bear with us, dear,” Jana told me. “Jan and I agreed to take a vote before we do anything.” She turned to her husband. “OK, those in favor of going to search for the girl right now, raise your hand!” She immediately raised her hand. Jan didn’t. “Those against?” Jan raised his hand.
“Sorry, dear,” Jana said sweetly. “We can’t go, unless . . . unless you also vote!” I eagerly raised my hand.
“But he’s not a citizen of our Island,” Jan argued.
“But he can become a citizen,” countered Jana.
“Well, yes, he can,” agreed Jan.
They turned to face me. “Will you?” Jana held out a legal-looking document. “Sign here,” she said, pointing. “It says that you agree to abide by the laws of our democracy.”
I signed with a flourish, thinking I’d have no problem accepting democratic law. Jan and Jana signed as witnesses, then congratulated me with great enthusiasm.
“Welcome, fellow citizen,” Jan mumbled, examining the signatures and affixing a seal to the document.
“Let us show you our democracy works,” Jana offered cheerfully. “We’ll vote for chaining you to this nice pole.” She pointed to a sturdy pole planted upright in the middle of the back yard and laughed. I laughed along with the joke. “Those in favor?” She and Jan raised their hands, grinning broadly. “Those against?” Jana asked, and I mimicked them precisely.
I was still grinning when I felt something hard and cold clamp around my left ankle. I looked down in time to watch Jan lock a heavy metal cuff on me and then jump back to safe distance. A heavy chain connected the leg cuff to the pole. I was chained like a dog. Like a slave.
“Well, honey,” Jana said brightly, “did we do everything democratically?” “We sure did, honey,” Jan answered happily.
I struggled in vain to free myself. “This isn’t funny anymore,” I cried. “Let me go! You can’t make a slave out of me!”
“Slave?” Jana sounded genuinely surprised. “There are no slaves here. We held an honest democratic vote. Two against one. Clear majority. Now, let’s vote on who will sweep the yard tomorrow.”
“I propose him,” Jan said loudly, and raised his hand.
“I agree,” Jana said, even louder.
“I object!” I shouted, and plunked down in the middle of the yard.
“I think he is refusing to abide by the majority vote decision, honey,” Jana giggled.
“What does our Constitution say about it?” Jan took out a huge book and began flipping pages. “Aha! Their punishment is to listen to us singing.” They began to laugh as if this was the best joke in the world. Jan ran off and brought back a banjo, sat down on a stool and began to play. Jana began to sing and dance around him. It was the clumsiest dance I ever saw, and the screeching reminded me forcibly of dear old Agroma.
In the middle of this impromptu concert, the door into the yard opened and a bulky man in his fifties strode in. Jan and Jana froze, and my hopes immediately soared. “Please help me,” I begged him. “I just arrived on this island and these people chained me up. I’ve lost a friend, and I must find her. Please set me free!”
The man looked at me closely, then at Jan and Jana. “I don’t like it,” he said firmly. “As an official representative of the Inter-Islands Committee on Human Rights, I must say this situation might be construed as an unlawful chaining. I don’t like it at all.”
Jan stepped forward. “Glad you stopped by, Dob,” she said brightly. “How’s the wife and kids; all fine, I trust? Glad the baby’s feeling better. Now you come on over here, and we’ll all sit down and discuss this rationally. Jan, do you see any unlawful chaining?”
“Unlawful chaining?” Jan was genuinely offended. “We’re not barbarians, for God’s sake! Now, a simple case of voluntary movement restriction . . .”
“Voluntary?!” I burst out. “I’m telling you, sir, they tricked me and chained me like a slave. You’ve got to help me, please!”
“Now just a moment.” Dob moved toward the table where Jana already had set out a vintage bottle of liquor and two delicate crystal glasses. “These are grave accusations, my boy! What evidence have you to support them?”
“Evidence?! Don’t you see this chain attached to my leg and this pole?”
“You say they chained you against your will. They say it was a voluntary action. Two well- respected people with an impeccable record and one boy from who knows where—whom should I believe?”
Dob now stood next to the bottle, eyeing the glasses Jana had filled. He mumbled, “I am on duty,” then thought about it and announced, “Well, one glass won’t change anything, and I wouldn’t want to offend these good people.” He raised and then drained one of the glasses, glanced at the other, calculated again, and downed its contents as well. “For my comrades who died defending freedom,” he explained solemnly.
For several seconds there was respectful silence. Then Dob asked no one in particular, “Did you take a vote?”
“We did,” Jan and Jana chorused. Dob turned to face me.
“But they tricked me! They were laughing and joking about it, so I thought . . .”
“So it’s settled,” Dob concluded. “Everything happened according to our glorious laws of Democracy. I personally don’t approve of chains, but I can’t interfere in affairs involving local regulations on individual Islands.”
He saluted Jan and Jana and turned to leave. At the door he stopped again. “Tomorrow members of the Committee for Human Rights will be visiting several Islands, this included. I hope all of the paperwork regarding this incident will be in order. All the votes, procedures, signed registrations . . . Well, I must go now.”
“Say hello to your charming wife and kids,” Jana shouted as he opened the door. “Need to get that brownie recipe. Jan can’t stop raving about her brownies.” Then she turned to Jan. “This issue of this new one must be handled properly.”
“Better to have a hundred friends than not to have them,” Jan replied.
“Don’t count on it,” Jana shot back. “We don’t have much time to tame this one.” They both looked at me.
“I’ll escape, no matter what you do,” I said defiantly.
“He’s stronger than the last one,” Jana observed. “We must vote for a stronger chain.” She raised her hand and stared at her husband.
Jan reluctantly raised his hand. “But it’ll do for now, right? We need to find out if this friend of his came ashore and is snooping around. If she did, she’ll have to go before any trouble starts. We don’t want any illegals on our Island, right, honey?”
They were gone for several hours. I desperately tried to free myself, but the chain was too strong and the pole was too deep in the ground. I couldn’t do anything. When they came back they were both agitated and triumphant.
“I have good news and bad news for you,” Jan said. “Where I should start? Well then, bad news first. Your friend made it to this Island. The good news is, she left for good. We told her no strangers have been seen here for a long, long time,” he chuckled.
I felt both relieved and sad. Ninoh was alive, but she was gone, and no one else would ever look for me here.
“It’s all very convenient,” Jana was saying. “Here you cook, here you wash dishes, and here you put scraps and garbage. Everything is very well organized.”
“I’m not doing anything,” I said.
“Honey,” Jan said grinning, “I think we shouldn’t feed this nice boy if he won’t work.”
“But honey,” Jana protested, “we must do everything democratically. I propose a new law. If someone doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. Those in favor?” Both raised their hands. “Those against?” I refused to participate. “Good! Two for, one present but not voting. Motion is passed; another triumph for democracy.”
“I love you, honey,” Jan said with a smile. “You’re the best.”
They entered the house laughing. Soon the light in their bedroom went out and a little later I heard them both snoring. After about an hour I dozed off. Jan came out to check on me twice that night. I thought about grabbing him, but he never got close enough.
I woke when the sun was rising, certain that I’d heard a noise. A moment later a soft voice came from behind the fence. “Be very quiet and don’t move. They sleep very lightly, and we don’t have much time. If you understand, raise your hand slowly.” I did so and heard a voice I knew well. “Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?”
I was relieved almost to tears when Ninoh and a boy our age appeared. The boy held out a key and unlocked my leg chain. He put his finger to his lips and smiled, then chained Ninoh to the pole as quickly and quietly as he had freed me.
“What are you doing?” I whispered in horror.
Ninoh smiled and squeezed my arm reassuringly. “Timmy will explain later,” she murmured. “Now go!” Timmy took off and I followed him toward a low hill.
“Took me more than a year to make that key,” Timmy explained as we ran. “Took months just to steal a fork and hide it, and even longer to shape a key. The first one didn’t work. They were so cunning, especially her, watching me all the time, pretending to leave for hours at a time. But I learned them well.”
We now were quite a distance from the house, in a leafy grove at the foot of the hill. Suddenly Timmy grabbed my arm. “Come on!” He scrambled up a tree, disappearing into the thick greenery overhead. I followed and found myself in a tree house, completely hidden on every side and practically invisible from below. Timmy handed me a pair of binoculars, and pointed toward the house. Bungalow and beach lay below us; this was a perfect hiding and observation point. “I stole those binoculars when I escaped,” he said casually. “Came in handy.”
I shifted my gaze and focused in on Ninoh. She was sitting on the ground, leaning back against the pole, her eyes closed, resting, smiling. Timmy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at a small barge that was heading toward the island. Even at a distance I recognized Dob’s bulky figure among the small crowd on deck. “The Commission is on its way,” Timmy whispered, eyes gleaming. “We’ve stirred up a real hornets’ nest; now the fun starts.”
He was silent for a moment, then burst out, “How I hate them! A thousand times I thought about what I’d do to them when I was free, how I’d make them pay for all my humiliation and suffering. I could’ve burned their house, just locked the doors and watched them die, but I wanted more. I wanted them to suffer and look into my eyes.”
Ninoh was singing now, probably about that boy who wanted to be a girl. Then she picked up two metal trash can lids and banged them together with all her might. The sound drove Jan and Jana into the yard. They froze for a second, then ran around, in and out of the house. Ninoh didn’t even look at them. She was into her song and nothing could have distracted her. But I noticed that her left hand rested on the hilt of her sword.
At this point Jana noticed that the Commission was on its way. She yelled something to Jan, who ran to fetch the book of laws they’d tricked me with. They spoke to Ninoh, but she was totally absorbed in her art. Jan ran to see if the barge had docked. He was very agitated when he returned, and both of them hurriedly signed the document before Jan affixed a seal to it.
“Got ’em!” Timmy was delighted. “The trap is set. Now let’s move, but quietly.”
We scrambled back down, and from behind some bushes watched several men and women walk toward the bungalow, and disappear into it one by one. We ran toward the house and soon were crouched behind the fence, listening to the drama unfolding in the back yard.
“As you can see,” Jana was saying, “everything is perfectly clear and above board. We took a vote, two against none, absolutely legal.”
“What is your name, young lady?” asked an unknown voice, and then we heard the clear and crisp reply.
“I am Lady Ninoh of the clan of Gabrielle De Santis Gurgenidze, by birthright third in line to the throne of the Amazon homeland, known to you as the Island of Honor and Justice. By the right of battle, having defeated the former Supreme Ruler in a duel to the death in the public arena, I am the Supreme Ruler of the Amazon people and Commander-in-Chief of our allied forces. I can claim many more titles, but I won’t bore you with all of them just now.”
This was news even to me.
There was respectful silence on the other side of the fence. Then another voice asked, “Lady Ninoh, is this your signature, here, on this application for citizenship?”
I found a small hole in the fence and peered through it. One of the Committee women extended a document to Ninoh, who glanced first at it, then at Jan and Jana before she replied, “Yes, it is.”
“Yes?” the woman repeated in disbelief.
Jan and Jana looked at each other in complete surprise. Then Jana blurted, “I told you, everything on this Island . . .”
“May I clear something with you, Jana?” Ninoh interrupted calmly. “Am I to understand that, on this island, everything is done according to democratic law? All citizens must ‘abide by majority rule’ here, which means that everyone must do whatever the majority of voters decide to do, correct?”
After a long moment Jana nodded.
“And you, Jan,” Ninoh continued. “If there are three citizens on this island, then whatever two of them decide the third one must do, correct?”
Now Jan was reluctant to answer, but after scanning the committee members’ faces he also nodded.
“And Jana, if there are five citizens, then whatever a majority of three decides the other two must do, correct?”
The pause grew longer, but again Jana forced herself to nod yes.
“Good!” Lady Ninoh’s voice rang out with all the power of an heir to a throne and a commander- in-chief of allied forces. “I now ask all citizens of this island to vote on a motion to release me and then chain Jan and Jana to this pole—forever. Who votes against this motion?”
“That’s our cue!” Timmy whispered, and we tiptoed into the yard as Jan and Jana exchanged bewildered looks and raised their hands.
“Two against,” Ninoh announced. “Who votes in favor of this motion?” As she raised her hand Timmy and I moved to her side and raised our hands as well. I saw fear in Jan and Jana’s eyes. “Three in favor, two against,” Ninoh concluded. “Motion accepted.”
Timmy quickly unlocked the leg cuff. “This is madness!” Jana shrieked. “We don’t know these people!”
“There is a very easy way to verify if we are citizens of this island,” I said. “Check those documents, and you’ll see that all three of us have a right to vote according to the island’s law. And in your own words, Jana, if three is the majority then the other two have to abide by the majority decision.”
“Come, come,” Timmy said briskly. “Let us chain you to this nice pole. It won’t be for long, just the rest of your life. Which, I promise you, will be short and miserable.”
“Dob!” Jana ran to him, frantic. “You must help us! I’m your wife’s best friend, we spend all the holidays together, your kids grew up with mine . . .”
“I’m afraid my hands are tied, my dear,” Dob said with a shrug. “You know I can’t interfere in affairs involving local regulations. Everything has been done in strict accordance with inter- Island law: We witnessed a legal and democratic vote, three to two—a clear majority. God bless democracy! I’ll give your love to my better half.”
“Let them leave,” Ninoh snapped, and again everyone gaped at her. “Jan, Jana, I give you a choice. Stay here and serve Timmy, or leave this island immediately.”
A minute later the committee left, Jan and Jana stumbling along behind them. We followed at a little distance to make sure they boarded the barge. Then Timmy picked up a piece of charcoal from an old campfire and, with a few strokes, changed the sign on the beach to read “NO Democracy Island.” Then he let out a whoop and began doing a crazy victory dance around the sign.
Ninoh and I quickly faded out of sight as she led me to the hidden raft. We soon navigated past the surf and once again headed out to sea, looking for Hugh. The raft was aimed directly toward the rapidly setting sun.
For some time we rowed in silence. Suddenly Ninoh stopped and closed her eyes. “I was scared when you disappeared.” Her voice sounded strange.
I stopped rowing and stared at her until she opened her eyes. “I was scared too, when you weren’t around.”
We both turned to look back at the Island of No Democracy. “We should’ve taken Timmy with us,” Ninoh said, her voice back to normal.
“Why, do you think he’ll start chaining people to that pole?”
“He’s so full of hate, Nik. It’d be better to take him with us—and not let him near anybody for forty years! I asked him if he wanted to come with us, you know, but he said he was happy where he was.”
The sun had reached the horizon and begun its descent into the water. “We’d better hurry,” Ninoh said. We resumed rowing.
11. Fish Island
We entered the delta of Fish Island and sailed upstream. There the river became wider, clean and beautiful and filled with the most unusual fish we’d ever seen. Soon we noticed a small village on the lower bank. Even from a distance we could see it was very poor, with huts built from mud mixed with tree branches and leaves. There was one road in the middle of the village that the villagers called “main.” The road was uneven, dirty, with holes filled with stale water. The biggest hut belonged to the village elder, and when we came ashore we saw that the villagers were standing, sitting or pacing near this hut. Most were crying and beating themselves on the head. Soon we learned the reason for such distress: the villagers were hungry. Very hungry.
We were astonished; the river was full of fish. We asked the elder if there was a prohibition against killing and eating fish, like cows in India. We were told there was none; the villagers just didn’t know how to get the fish out of the river. Ninoh immediately fashioned an excellent fishing rod from a branch of a dry tree while I dug up plenty of fat worms. In no time we had caught a basketful of fish out and the happy villagers quickly prepared a meager feast. They spent half that night dancing and praising us, two great heroes who came from nowhere and saved their lives. The villagers were very nice and fun to be with. They sang marvelous songs and told us many wonderful tales. But the best thing happened when we went to bed in the elder’s hut: the whole village sang lullabies until we felt asleep.
The next morning we offered to teach the elder’s people how to fish. He declined, saying they needed food now, not a new skill that would take time to learn. They must have food right away, he begged us, or their children would die of starvation.
We went from one villager to another offering to teach them how to fish, but they all begged us to bring more food or they and their children would die. So we returned to the river and fished.
“You know,” Ninoh mused aloud, “I like it here. I’d like to stay in this village. I’d have a house on that hill, with a gorgeous rose garden and the best view in the world. I need a place to call my own, and these people need me. It’s a fair exchange.”
My heart sank. We were fast friends by now, but I’d always known that Ninoh and I were together only temporarily. “Yes, it is,” I said heartily. “Of course I’ll help you any way I can. But let me ask you something, Ni. You don’t like living in a hut and sleeping on dirt. You want nice things around. You can live without them for a while—you’ve proved that more than once—but now you’re talking about making this place your home.”
“I’ll bring the villagers fish,” Ninoh said, “and in return I’ll ask them to build me a house. I’ll ask them to plant and care for the garden, and help around the house. And I want them to sing me lullabies every night. It’s a fair exchange,” she repeated. “They’re starving and need someone to feed their whole village. All I want is a place to live and a few services in exchange.”
We caught enough fish for another feast and went to make Ninoh’s offer to the villagers. At first they were upset; they wanted fish for free. But soon their hunger forced them to start building Ninoh’s house, plant her rose garden, and sing her lullabies at night. Every day would Ninoh and I brought fish to the villagers, and in exchange they would work to make our lives better.
One morning Ninoh woke me up to ask if I knew how to preserve fish. She said she figured she could deliver some to villages on other islands. I told her everything I knew and by nightfall a small smoking factory was up and running. Very soon boats from other islands began arriving, loaded with products from different villages to be traded for smoked fish. Ninoh organized a small store that sold bread, butter, milk and other everyday goods. She added a few luxury items unknown to the villagers: new clothes and shoes and jewelry that drove the women crazy, and rifles and tools and equipment that had the men drooling. Life in the village had changed.
And I didn’t get to see any of it. I caught a bad cold and was bedridden for a long time, but Ninoh kept me well informed. She spent every day in the village, always busy: organizing something, teaching something, explaining and watching and advising. In the evening she’d come to check on me and tell me about her day. She was very proud of her achievements, and so was I.
One morning I was lying in bed, gazing out the open window of my room in Ninoh’s new house, sneezing and miserable and thinking about Hugh. No one knew anything about him. No one had heard any stories about a boy who flew to the Thousand Islands Empire from nowhere one full- moon night. Maybe he was lost, maybe he fell into the ocean. Maybe he was marooned on one of those uninhabited islands that we’d read about in adventure books. I’ve heard about people who spent twenty or more years on such islands, talking to monkeys and eating whatever they could find.
I must have been thinking out loud, because an old gardener appeared at the open window and politely asked if I needed anything. “Yes,” I said wearily, “I need to know something. Have you ever seen or heard of a boy who flew here one night during the full moon?”
“Well, yes, of course,” he said. “I saw it, everybody saw it.”
I nearly fell out of bed. “Saw it? Saw what? When? Where? Did you see a boy? How old was he? Do you know where he went?”
The old man retreated a step or two and stammered that he’d seen not one, but twelve boys one night, all using huge kites to fly. He hesitantly added that everybody knows the moon is always full over the Thousand Islands, and that the flying boys served as the Emperor’s Imperial Guard, doing His Excellency’s most dangerous and important bidding.
Emperor? I never heard anything about any Emperor! As I sputtered and fumed, the old gardener quietly disappeared. Then I realized that this is the Thousand Islands Empire, and therefore it must have an Emperor. That’s who will know what’s going on here. Now I know what to do, I told myself: the moment I can walk, I’ll go and find this Emperor and he’ll tell me about Hugh. I instantly felt like I was in seventh heaven and lay down again, determined to recover very soon.
After twelve straight hours’ sleep, I felt well enough to walk down the hill and see all the changes for myself.
The village had been transformed. Merchants and visitors had flooded in, and Ninoh had built a small tavern so they could rent rooms and enjoy the seafood that was becoming so famous. In order to bring products to the store and take them from several small factories that now made all kinds of fish products, the new road was built in no time. The villagers worked at the factories and at the store, on a new pier, and various other construction projects as Ninoh directed them. They were earning money for the first time in their lives, and had begun rebuilding and redecorating their homes. A talented few actually began to design and build for others; some now specialized in interior decorating, unheard of in the past. A young doctor arrived and bought a house in the village, and soon after a pharmacy opened. A small traveling circus followed, and the villagers experienced their first professional entertainment. Everything had changed, and it had all happened right before our eyes—well, Ninoh’s eyes anyway. But the biggest change was at the top of the hill, where Ninoh and I now lived.
I hadn’t seen the house from the outside at all, and not much of the inside. Now I beheld a mansion surrounded by beautiful gardens, waterfalls and fountains. An automatic sprinkling system hummed quietly at night, raining softy on Ninoh’s paradise. At all hours the villagers would trudge up the hill to see the rain machine, or wander through the gardens or picnic near the house, and always ended up staring through the windows.
Ninoh didn’t like that. One day a boat brought a gang of workers who installed a high fence, completely surrounding the house and grounds. The boat also delivered Ninoh’s majordomo, a gentleman instantly despised and feared by the villagers because of his odd clothing and foreign accent. The fence’s heavy gate remained locked unless Ninoh allowed a visitor to enter. There was a small device with a knob that you were supposed to press; then you had to wait until the majordomo’s voice asked who wished to enter and for what purpose. You had to answer promptly and then wait for the majordomo (may his grave be without flowers for eternity) to decide if you were worth opening the gate for.
The fence was installed, and triggered a flood of rumors: golden plates and redwood furniture filled the house; unusual foods were served, which had to be eaten using wooden sticks; silk robes painted with dragons that Ninoh and I wore mornings and evenings. One of the kitchen helpers swore there was a cupboard that made ice and cold water, and even froze food on the hottest day of the year. A girl who helped in the garden said that she saw a box where tiny people lived and performed at Ninoh’s or my will. No one really believed them, but the villagers’ imagination was seething. Ninoh and I laughed it off and ignored the rumors.
When I told Ninoh that I’d be leaving soon to continue looking for Hugh, she started to cry. She said that every night she thought about joining me, but every morning when she saw the village, all the changes she brought and those still envisioned, she decided to stay. As a child she’d heard about the Emperor, of course, but always thought he was like the Tooth Fairy, someone that adults only mention when they need something from you.
The village was difficult to recognize. Sturdy, tidy houses stood along both sides of the main road, which had been paved and lined with flowers and shrubs. The new pier was busy with dozens of boats, some loading, others unloading. A small shopping plaza under construction bristled with signs advertising a future legal office, dental studio, art gallery, and an intimate apparel store. Everything was neat and clean; no crying children or hungry adults anywhere. I envied Ninoh; she could say “I did this” with honest pride.
And indeed she was proud, and happier than I’d ever seen her. This is her Hugh, I thought. She found what she was looking for. My time to leave.
But then in a heartbeat everything changed. The village elder called on to Ninoh to discuss the doctor’s services which, in the villagers’ opinion, were too expensive. The evening was hot and humid, but the air in Ninoh’s house was cool and dry. When the elder asked how that was possible, Ninoh explained that she had a machine called an air conditioner, which produced cold air throughout her home. This was too much for the elder to bear. He badly wanted to stay longer but had no excuse after Ninoh offered to pay the villagers’ doctor bills. As he hurried down the hill, the news about the cool air spread like wildfire.
Now the villagers were not only curious, they were angry. There was no rational reason for them to be angry, but they were. They wanted cool air, and a rose garden, and a box with cold drinks and a box with tiny entertainers. They wanted everything Ninoh had. So they went up the hill and took it, piece by piece. They were very happy to find the majordomo and beat him to a pulp. They searched everywhere for Ninoh and me, but we were at the pier, saying our goodbyes to each other.
I was on the raft and Ninoh was on the dock, both of us smiling bravely and waving sadly, when we heard someone shrieking, “Wait for me!” We turned to see the young doctor racing toward us, visibly distressed and struggling to balance a heavy sack and several books. The pharmacist was hot on his heels, also toting his prized possessions. Ignoring us completely, they sprang into the doctor’s boat and began showing off. Then a severely battered majordomo appeared, jumped into the water and swam after them. Only then did we hear the distant cries and shouts of the mob on the hill.
“I do not want to see that,” Ninoh said grimly, and stepped down onto the raft. She stood with her back to Fish Island, facing out to sea, as I rowed away.
We later learned it was the happiest day of the villagers’ lives. They had cool air and cold drinks. They raided the factories and stores and carried off the most expensive fish and strongest liquor, as much as they could carry. They held a village meeting and, drunk and happy, decided that everything in the village belonged to no one person, but to all people. That night they took apart Ninoh’s house, factories and stores, and everyone took home whatever he or she wanted. The next day they ate the last of the smoked fish and brought home whatever was left at the stores and the pharmacy, including wall decorations, lamps and furniture. Then the third day came. A couple of boats arrived to pick up smoked and salted fish in exchange for the goods they delivered, but there was no fish and they left. The air conditioner and other wonderful appliances in the house stopped working; even the sprinklers—which were not needed any more, since the villagers cut off all the roses and took them home.
Then the village elder deputized two bulky men, who went from house to house retrieving the goods taken from Ninoh’s house and factories. Villagers who resisted were severely beaten. When the fourth day came, the entire village gathered in front of the elder’s house—Ninoh’s former residence—begging for food. The deputies came out with clubs in their hands and the villagers slunk off to repair the factories and fishing facilities.
And so life in the village was restored. The only difference was that under Ninoh’s leadership they had worked hard for more money and better lives, and now they pretended to work hard because they were afraid of being punished. The elder doled out enough fish to feed the people, regardless of how they worked. The quality of the smoked and salted fish dropped, and most of the buyers disappeared. New construction stopped; roads and buildings and gardens began falling apart. The doctor’s house was used as a jail for those who spoke well of Ninoh or ill of the present regime. Soon people learned not to talk. Ninoh’s house became The People’s House, and the fence was made much higher and heavily reinforced. No one except the elder’s trusted deputies could enter. The villagers started each day with a meeting in Revolution Square (the site of the elder’s old hut). During these meetings they heard how their lives became better and how bad it was during Ninoh’s rule.
Some villagers now spied on their neighbors and deputies beat up those who inadequately praised the elder and the new way of life. When rare visitors asked why, the deputies replied, “We must preserve our equality at all cost.” They were equal, as they were before Ninoh and I first arrived, but now some were more equal than others.
We were at quite a distance from Fish Island when Ninoh spoke for the first time since we left. “Greed is good,” she said, speaking more to herself. “Greed builds roads and everybody can use them.” Then after a long pause she added, “I hate fish.”
12. Island of Lost Dreams
This was the most beautiful view we’d ever seen. Ninoh and I were nearing an island of dreamlike and endless beauty. Huge statues and lofty, pillared buildings blended into tropical forests; marble ponds intervened with natural waterfalls; futuristic glass walls stood in the middle of nothing and behind them stretched shelves laden with hundreds of books.
We entered the most beautiful lagoon imaginable, secured our raft and approached the stairs of what resembled both an ancient Mayan temple and the glorious edifices of Old Europe. No one greeted us. We saw no one as we explored and enjoyed the beauty of the island. It seemed completely abandoned. The only sounds came from the surf, the birds, and the sweet, sad song of the wind in the leaves.
It took us a while to climb to the top of the stairs. There we saw a broad stone terrace, on which an old man was sitting in an old armchair, an old leather-bound book on his lap. He seemed to be daydreaming; his eyes were closed and he wore a faint smile. For some time we stood there not wanting to wake him up, but he suddenly opened his eyes, looked up as if he’d been waiting for us all along, and breathed, “At last!”
His name was Given. “My parents were quite old and didn’t expect a child, so when I was born they felt like I was given to them. But you can call me Givi. That’s what they used to call me.”
Ninoh and I flooded Givi with questions. What happened? Where is everyone? We don’t hear voices or any other sounds humans usually make. It’s so beautiful here, but lonely. Did they leave you here? Are they coming back?
“There is no ‘they,’ children,” sighed the old man. “Never has been. No one left this island, no one is coming back. No one. Only I am here and now you, bless you for coming!” And then Givi told us the saddest tale I ever heard.
The island was once totally uninhabited; except for monkeys and birds, no one set foot on its soil. Then one day ten young dreamers, five couples, came ashore. They wanted to build a new life, create a new and better world, and they had come here to start from scratch. There were five couples who shared similar thoughts and ideas. All of them were highly educated, highly motivated and very smart. On our island everything will be different, they said; we’ll all work together to make our dreams come true. They brought equipment and tools, will and determination, and most important, a clear understanding of what they would create on their glorious Island of Dreams.
The dreamers started by draining the swamps and clearing the forests. Then they created their homes, modern scientific labs and ancient baths, and a library and concert hall. They added terraces and flower gardens and sculptures, and the island became their paradise. They worked hard, enjoyed music together, and watched sunsets on this very terrace, which they’d designed specifically for that purpose. They made important scientific discoveries and achieved in their lifetimes a near miracle: harmony.
Along the way, each of the five couples were blessed with one child. These exceptional children were so busy learning, doing, building, and achieving that they had no time for anything else. Their lives were full and accomplished. As they grew up, the two boys and three girls worked alongside their parents, enjoying the island and contributing their own time and energy to perfecting their lives. The children were as dedicated as their parents, perhaps even more.
One child grew up to become a great architect, another excelled in nuclear physics; one was an outstanding artist and another an incomparable chef. These four became two couples. The fifth child, a girl, left the island after serving as witness to the wedding ceremony of her friends. She just vanished one day without a word to anyone, and they wondered for some time what had happened to her and where she was.
Over time the old dreamers died and the two young couples had one child each, a boy and a girl. The youngsters had the whole island to themselves. Their favorite game was to find a slight imperfection in what their parents and grandparents had created and tell each other how one day they’d make it even better. And one day they exchanged marriage vows and took over; the island was theirs. As descendents of almost all of the original settlers, they were the culmination and embodiment of the dreams of the two previous generations.
He became a marine biologist, she an engineer of immeasurable talent. They were so much absorbed in their work that only in old age did they suddenly realize their solitude. No one was there to enjoy life on the island, to learn from them, to continue their task. It took them years of frustration and false hopes to give birth to a son.
They named him Given and gave him everything they could. At a very early age they discovered he had an outstanding voice. “I’m a born opera singer,” he told us. “One in a zillion. Mother played piano and gave me vigorous training. My parents enjoyed me singing until the day they both died. I buried them and sang over their grave. For years I would come to the Hall of Remembrance and sing for all of them, our founders and heroes.”
Now the sun began its descent into the ocean, and Givi slowly stood up and began to sing, tears in his eyes. His voice was rich and strong and full of love. He hadn’t boasted; he was truly magnificent. But there was no one on the island to sing to, no one to appreciate his great gift. No one to enjoy the paradise built on the island. No one to share his thoughts, and happy and sad moments. Givi sat down again, brushed away his tears, and smiled at us.
“I want to give you this island,” he said simply. “It’s yours. Take it, live here, and be happy. You are young and will be able to accomplish a lot. You will make life on this island even better that it was before.”
Ninoh and I exchanged wary looks, then turned around to inspect our surroundings. Everything showed signs of deterioration; now we noticed that even the flowers drooped. We started backing away from this wretched old man and his decaying paradise. “Sorry, but we can’t stay; we are looking for Hugh. Goodbye.” And we hurried off down the stairs, onto the raft and away from the Island of Lost Dreams.
“There you go,” Ninoh said as we rowed beyond the surf, “If you don’t have children, no one needs your songs.”
“Don’t forget inventions. No one needs your experiments, inventions or revelations.” I was thinking already about our next destination.
13. Island of Peace
“You must remove your weapons and leave them with the Port Authority. They will be returned when you leave our Island of Peace,” said the smiling customs officer who greeted us at the small port of this lovely green island. It was indeed peaceful here; we understood perfectly why the islanders didn’t want visitors going around with swords on their belts.
What was strange is that border guards, customs officers and even police were not carrying weapons. “There are no weapons on the Island of Peace,” they explained. “We don’t believe in violence.”
“I like their attitude,” Ninoh said. “Think about it, weapons are bad. People feel powerful when they hold them. It might be a good idea to outlaw all weapons. Many lives could be saved.”
I wasn’t sure about that. I was told many times that weapons are not bad unless they fall into the wrong hands, and I believed this simple truth. But if they were taken off everyone’s hands, they couldn’t fall into the wrong ones, right?
We wandered the streets of the capital city. Everyone on the island was really kind and nice. We went to a farmers’ market. We watched clowns perform on a stage and agreed that, if things got rough again, we’d try our luck with a circus. There were many exotic fruits to try, and an abundance of nuts and fresh lemonade. “Don’t you have real fights here?” Ninoh asked one old farmer whose goat cheese we favored among a dozen we tasted. “Not clowns making fun of each other, but people defending their honor, for example, or just losing their temper?”
“Of course we do,” he answered. “We’re people, some of us with quite a temper—like my missus. But we reason with each other and since there are no weapons anywhere, it almost never comes to a tragic end. We even outlawed sharp knives. Sometimes it’s very inconvenient, but it’s worth it.”
“Wait a second,” Ninoh said, “what about soldiers? They have weapons, right? They can enter into a quarrel. Or a little boy can find daddy’s gun and fire it at his friend. Don’t tell me that’s never happened here!”
The farmer smiled. “You just gave me another good reason to ban guns forever,” he answered. “We don’t have an army. We don’t need it. We’re not planning to attack anyone, and we can reason with anyone who’d want to conquer us. We’re not a rich island. There is nothing here that would attract fortune hunters.”
Ninoh’s eyes flashed. “I’ve known people who sought power for it’s own sake They wanted to conquer just to conquer, to torture for the sake of torture. Those are bad people, and you can’t reason with them. You have to fight, and fight hard!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, young lady,” the farmer said with a smile. “You can reason with anyone. You can explain to them that trade and friendship is better than fighting. They have families too, and they’ll understand.”
I looked around; a small group of passersby had gathered and stood there listening to us, nodding their approval of the old farmer’s words.
“What you would do if such bad people came to your land?” asked a girl about our age, who carried a basket filled with fruits and vegetables. Ninoh’s hand moved to where her sword used to be. “You see,” the girl said, “you wouldn’t even sit down with them to discuss why they’re doing what they’re doing. Maybe they have problems, or maybe they just crave attention.”
“First I’d kick them out of my home,” Ninoh snapped, “and then I might be ready to reason with them and find out what their problem is. You, young lady, have got your priorities wrong. First kick their ass, then talk sense.”
“We’re pacifists here,” smiled the girl, “and pacifists think differently. We’re way past those violent thoughts and discussions. Violence is never the answer.”
“Excuse me.” I decided to join the conversation. “What would happen if those good people you’re talking about decide to kill a couple of kids here on this island?”
“You’re sick,” said the old farmer. “Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed another. “What a disgusting thought,” spat a third. The crowd turned their backs on us and melted away while the farmers returned to their stands and ignored us completely. The girl remained, still smiling. I rather liked her. She was small, with a round, friendly face and very short light hair. She didn’t agree with what we were saying, but she didn’t dismiss us just because we thought differently
“You must excuse my countrymen,” she said. “They don’t like hypothetical conversations about killing children. They can’t stomach it. But you came from a violent world, where killing and waging war is normal. If you decide to stay here, you will come to understand that human beings are basically good, just confused. When you talk to them . . .”
“You mean you’d keep talking to someone who says he’s going shoot your children?” Ninoh was stunned.
“My name is Mona,” said the girl, “and I am too young to have children.”
“Well, Mona,” Ninoh said as they shook hands, “I want to ask you something, since you can stomach hypothetical questions about killing children. Let’s say there are two kids standing in front of a stranger, who has a gun and is about to shoot them. You beg him not to, but he says he doesn’t care and is about to squeeze the trigger. Suddenly you see a gun within reach. You can pick it up and shoot the murderer. Would you?”
“We don’t have guns on this Island, so there’d be no gun to pick up and shoot anyone,” Mona replied sweetly. “And yes, I’m quite sure I could talk this guy out of killing innocent children. He probably had a rough childhood and needs someone to talk to.”
“Are you ready to take a chance that he won’t kill one of the kids?” Ninoh insisted, but Mona smiled her widest smile and turned and walked away. It was probably too much even for her to stomach.
“Can you believe that?” Now Ninoh was angry. “I hope they never live to regret their words.” How little we knew.
Everywhere we went, we asked about Hugh. No one had heard about any newcomer. No one saw any boys flying with kites during a full moon. No one had any weapons. No one could give us any reason for a good fight, or for waging a war. They simply couldn’t see any reason why a person would want to kill or hurt another. Not one.
“Nice people,” Ninoh grunted.
“I can’t stand them anymore,” she added. My feeling exactly.
We walked back to the port to retrieve our swords and leave this sickly-sweet island when we heard loud cries coming from the marketplace. We ran towards the conflict along with dozens of islanders.
A huge crowd surrounded the stage where the clowns had performed. Unable to see anything behind the silent mass that was staring at whatever it was, we elbowed our way closer. Finally we got to the first row and saw five midgets walking up and down the stage, holding armed crossbows aimed at the crowd. Near the stage lay a dead peace officer with an arrow through his neck. Another officer lay bleeding and moaning face down on the stage, two arrows in his back. The midgets ignored them completely.
The tallest of the midgets was addressing the crowd. “If anyone tries to leave this Island without my permission it will be considered a crime, and crime is punished by death. If anyone disobeys any orders from any of my men, it’s considered a crime. And crime is punished by death. If anyone is on the streets after sunset, it will be considered a crime. And crime is punished by death. I am Draga the Warlord,” he roared, thrusting his armed crossbow into the air, “and I will personally execute the offenders and their families. Do I make myself clear?”
The crowd sagged with shock. The answer to Draga’s speech was deafening silence. I signaled to Ninoh: Only five of them? Her eyes slid from side to side and I saw six or seven more, armed with crossbows and knives, walking behind the crowd. Then the crowd parted and we saw a tall man in his sixties who was led to the stage by two armed midgets.
“And who is this?” demanded the self-proclaimed warlord.
“I am governor of this Island,” the tall man stated clearly, “and I demand an explanation of . . .” Draga shot him through the heart without even looking at him. The crowd gasped and cringed.
“No one speaks to me until they’re spoken to,” he said coldly. “Now, since your governor has had a most tragic accident and no longer can fulfill his duties, I hereby appoint myself in his stead. Is there anyone to oppose me?”
No one answered. No one even inhaled. “Good. That’s what I thought.”
“Excuse me, sir.” I heard a voice and saw the old farmer whose goat cheese we liked so much making his way through the crowd. I wanted to stop him but he was too far away.
The little leader gaped at the old farmer at utter disbelief. “Didn’t I just tell them that they can talk to me only when they’re spoken to?” he asked one of his minions who stood nearby, still aiming his crossbow at the crowd.
“I am an old man, sir,” the farmer continued, coming closer, “and I’d like to tell you that what you did was absolutely unnecessary.”
“And why is that?” Draga sneered, fingering the wicked-looking knife at his belt.
“We’re all civilized people here,” the old farmer said soothingly. “We can talk to each other. We can resolve problems. We can negotiate . . .”
Draga’s knife flew across the stage and deep into the old man’s chest. The farmer collapsed, bleeding and unconscious.
“End of negotiations,” Draga spat. “I won.” He scanned the crowd. “Anyone else?”
I saw movement within the crowd and then a glimpse of Ninoh grabbing a young girl and pushing her down and out of the crowd. Ninoh’s hand covered her mouth, but I recognized Mona.
“What was that?” The stunted warlord whirled in their direction. Two midgets immediately began moving toward the disturbance.
I thought fast. “Lord Draga,” I said loudly, “may I speak, my lord?”
I had their attention and the girls were safe for now. “Go ahead,” he growled, towering over me from the stage.
“My lord,” I repeated with a deep bow, “I think we understood. May we go now? Or do you wish us to do something?”
Draga’s growl turned into a roar of laughter. “I like this boy,” he grinned at me. “I might use you. Come tomorrow morning and we’ll talk.”
He turned to the crowd. “You people got a very valuable lesson today. Now, clean up this mess, and bring food and wine to the governor’s residence—or a few more of you will be dead in the morning.”
When I found the girls around the corner, Mona was crying. “I’ve known him all my life,” she sobbed. “I’ve been buying cheese from him as long as I can remember. And the governor is my uncle. My mother’s brother. He taught me to read and write.”
“Do you know where those midgets came from?” I asked her urgently. “How many there are? How they got here? And how we can get our swords back?”
“Are there any weapons on this island?” Ninoh broke in. “Any people who could fight Draga’s little army?”
Mona didn’t know where those terrible people came from, or how many were on the island. But she knew that their ship had come to the island about a month ago, and they’d set up a big tent and performed circus acts. They had ridden fine horses, walked on ropes, and boasted that their best number was throwing knives, which for some reason were prohibited on the Island of Peace.
“Ship, eh?” Ninoh nudged me, and off we went to the port. There was a three-misted yacht in the middle of the marina. Several armed midgets patrolled the deck, and they all looked bored.
“I’d guess no more than fifty aboard,” Ninoh muttered, “and I’d bet on about thirty. What do you think?”
“The element of surprise,” I answered, “will serve us best if we attack tonight. They’re so sure of themselves, they’re already careless.”
“People?” Ninoh raised an eyebrow.
I shrugged. “Let’s hope that today’s show made a lasting impression on the islanders. But are they ready? I don’t have an answer.”
“I’ll fight,” Mona said quickly, “but I don’t know how. No one on the island knows how to fight. No one’s had a gun, a sword or even a knife in our hands for years, because we have none. But you can count me in.” I was proud of her.
“People first.” Ninoh’s tone was once again that of commander-in-chief and Third to the Throne. She was born and bred to lead in difficult situations; in critical moments something clicked inside her and she assumed leadership effortlessly. “We don’t need many, but about a dozen fighters is a must.”
“Have you a plan, my Lady?” I asked with a wink.
Ninoh grinned savagely. “In my head are all the plans ever developed on my island—which was notorious for fighting,” she added for Mona’s sake. After a short mental count she added, “There are about a dozen plans created for this very situation by the Supreme Lady’s staff alone, for kicking invaders’ butts and freeing an island of medium size. However, no one ever planned on using pacifists instead of soldiers, but we’ll try to manage. I hope they’re not cowards, just pacifists. Yes, I have a plan.”
“I know where all the important people will go today,” Mona offered. “I’ll take you there.”
It was almost dark, and armed patrols glared upward suspiciously at everyone on the streets. Mona quickly led us to an old mill on the outskirts of the city. “This is where we come for important occasions,” she told us. “There’s a stage and a dance floor, where we celebrate. There’s also our Museum of the Dark Ages, which contains many historical objects from our past. I’m sure other people who want to end this terrible situation will find their way here.”
We entered the mill and found about thirty to forty men and women, all grim, some in tears. A bold bulky man of about forty, whom Mona called Karl, was speaking when we came in. “We need to form a delegation of our most trusted citizens and discuss future arrangements with the new regime. We need to know what we will and will not be allowed to do, otherwise our relations with the new government will be strained. We need guidelines; that’s the most important task for tomorrow. We don’t even know how to address our new governor.”
A tall, well-dressed woman of obvious influence picked up where Karl left off. “We absolutely must learn how to live with the new government or we won’t be able to perform even simple everyday activities. I was planning my vacation, and now I’m not even sure my passport is still valid. I hope nothing will happened to destabilize the situation, and that we’ll find a way to cooperate. We’re all people, after all. We must work together to allow regular folks to live their normal, everyday lives without distractions, am I right?”
“What about freedom, Adulia?” demanded an older woman who looked like a school teacher. “Won’t you even consider fighting for your life?”
“This is exactly what I was afraid of,” Adulia sneered. “You’re only a museum curator, Mirra. What do you know about real life?”
“We’re surrounded by our history,” Mirra snapped back. “We’ve had great moments. We stood for something called principles, and we evolved from a society of barbarians to one of high moral values. Look around you; what do you see?”
I looked around. The island’s history was reflected in the costumes of previous generations, in samples of their furniture, utensils, and handicrafts. And ancient weapons. Not much, but something.
The curator continued, “We must never allow those murderers to make us a society of slaves. We must resist with all our might. We must learn how to fight again. Some things are more important than life itself!”
“Nothing is more important than life,” said bold Karl. “The new government . . .” “The midgets, you mean,” Ninoh interjected.
“Don’t call them that,” Adulia snapped. “I personally have always preferred shorter men. And these gentlemen are not short enough to call them . . . that despicable word. They may be a little harsh, but that’s probably because insensitive people like you call them that.”
A timid young woman suddenly brightened up. “Do you think they might want to marry local girls? There have always been more women than men on our Island. We women suffered and no one cared.” Mona whispered that her name was Klara.
“I don’t care who’s in charge,” said a guy dressed like a working man but with manicured nails. “Everyone needs workers and workers need us organizers. They’re like little children without us.”
A well-dressed man in his forties named Utti spoke up. “There are many good things that can happen as a result of the change in regime. We badly needed fresh air, so to speak. Our government was corrupt, and I personally voiced my opposition to many of the former governor’s decisions. Second, I’m sure they’ll hire people to help with the day-to-day work. Someone will have to supervise the common folk, and I for example know our people well and can be invaluable. And don’t forget, if some other power tried to conquer our island, we’d have warriors who will protect us. So you see, it’s not so clear who is using whom. They need us as much as we need them.”
“I’m ashamed of you,” Mona broke in hotly. “I brought foreigners who can help us fight back, and you’re already surrendering everything we’ve stood for all these years.”
“She has a personal animosity toward the new regime,” Adulia. “The previous governor was her uncle, and she wants to use us to retaliate for her family loss. How selfish!”
“Thank you, Mona,” Mirra said. “I’m glad there’s at least one person on our Island who hasn’t lost her courage and personal integrity.”
“I’d fight,” said Arthur, a short plumpish man in his thirties, “but I always was taught that fighting is always wrong; that no matter what, one human being can’t harm another. Now my wife and kids can be harmed and I can’t do anything about it.”
“But you can!” Ninoh said urgently. “There are no more than three dozen of them. And more than a thousand of you. They won’t be expecting a counterattack tonight. They’ll be drunk soon, and even their guards will become careless. Yes, some of you will be injured, some may even die—but you can take back your freedom, your dignity. What you will be teaching your kids if you give up now?”
“Who is this person?” Adulia demanded, looking down her long nose at Ninoh. “Who gave her the right to open her mouth here and teach us how to educate our children?”
“We have no weapons,” Karl said, ignoring her outburst. “If we had good weapons, we could fight. But we don’t.”
“What about the ones hanging on the walls?” I asked. Everybody began looking around eagerly.
“This junk?” Klara wrinkled her nose. “They’ll wipe you out with their crossbows. Didn’t you see how fast and how far they can shoot?”
A guy who looked like a college freshman came forward. “If we don’t argue, if we obey, they’ll have no reason to kill us. What are they asking for, after all? A little respect. And if we start fighting they’ll kill some of us and there goes any hope of compromise. We need to keep our doors open for future discussions. We haven’t even tried yet. And as a matter of fact, I don’t want to die. Is it a crime to want to live and enjoy life?”
“Those short soldiers may turn out to be nice people after all,” Klara added. “We don’t know the first thing about them, and we’re already rejecting them. That’s not fair. We must give them a chance to prove themselves.”
“They kill people,” Mona said flatly.
“No one said they’re perfect,” answered Klara.
Ninoh turned and spoke to me. “I don’t want to fight for these people. They make me sick. They’re not worth fighting for.”
She instantly became the focus of everyone’s attention.
“How many fighters do you have?” Adulia intoned, drawing herself up to full height. “And what do you want for helping us get rid of those bloody midgets?”
“I have no other fighters,” Ninoh grinned. “It’s just me and him.” She pointed, and I grinned too. “You pacifists confiscated our swords when we landed today, and now your port authority is controlled by the invaders. But my friend and I are willing to use your ancestors’ weapons right alongside you, and help you in any way we can—if you are also ready and willing to fight. But if you’re not, you’re not worth fighting for—and we’re leaving.”
“Wait!” Mona cried. “I’m ready to fight.”
“Me too,” said the old curator.
“I will,” Arthur piped up, and three or four other voices echoed his words.
Ninoh looked at me. Was it worth saving this island for the sake of a few righteous men?
A boy dashed into the mill yelling, “You’ve got to see this!” and everyone rushed out. It was already dark and the full moon lit the skies. Twelve teens were descending from the skies, using kites and carrying soda bottles.
“The Emperor’s death squad!” someone cried. “Sharks!” yelled another. “Hugh!” I hoped.
The first boy landed in front of us, looked us up and down, and announced, “The Emperor sent us to help.” There was silence while the other boys and girls landed. Each wore a sword and a backpack. I didn’t see Hugh among them.
The old curator stepped forward. “I, that is, we, thank you,” she stammered, “but who you are and how you can help?”
“The Imperial Guard, ma’am,” the boy replied briskly, “and I am captain. The Emperor sends his regards, and a warning. The midgets are very dangerous and bloodthirsty. They already invaded two other islands and left a great deal of suffering in their wake. They seek out islands without weapons because they’re the easiest to conquer.”
“And how you can help us?” asked Karl. “I don’t see any warriors, just twelve boys and girls without weapons or armor.”
“We will get rid of the invaders before they inflicted more damage,” the boy politely assured him. He was smiling quietly and meeting the eyes of everyone he spoke to, but somehow I got the feeling he was watching everything and everyone.
“And what happens to us if you all get killed?” intervened Adulia. “We could suffer even more if you all die.”
“Yes, ma’am. You might suffer more as a consequence of our deaths,” he acknowledged. Now all the Guards was looking at Adulia with interest, even amusement. “But I can assure you that, if we weren’t up to the task, we wouldn’t have been handpicked for His Excellency’s Imperial Guard.”
Adulia’s mouth opened and then snapped shut.
“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” Mirra said, “for your willingness to die for strangers. May I ask why the Emperor is helping us? History teaches us that the only place you can find free cheese is a mousetrap. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but this is an important practical matter for us.”
“I fully understand,” the young captain said earnestly. “I appreciate your directness and honesty, ma’am, and I will reciprocate. The Emperor doesn’t want to add your island to his holdings. He doesn’t want any tribute or payment from you in any form. He wants you to continue to be free, hopefully be our friends, but we’re not asking you to sign any treaty or agreement. Just be free, and prosper.”
There was a long silence, and then Mirra spoke out clearly. “God bless you all.”
“So it’s settled,” said the boy, and all twelve Guards moved forward, nodding and smiling. “Now, who can tell me where the midgets’ headquarters are, and describe in detail the building they’re occupying?”
“I can,” Mona offered. “I practically grew up in that building.”
“Excellent! Next, I’ll need volunteers. We must capture their yacht and enter their headquarters without losses on our side. I need help. The midgets might know our faces and we don’t want to alert them ahead of time.”
“I’ll help,” Mona said again.
“Count me in,” Arthur added.
“If I can help, I will,” Mirra promised.
Ninoh and I exchanged a silent agreement, and she turned to address the Guards. “Not one of these people has any battle experience, captain. My friend and I are travelers. We have been slaves and emerged victorious from the arena as gladiators. Don’t be fooled by our age and appearance. We can help.”
Now all twelve were staring at us. “There is never a connection between appearance and courage,” the captain replied, and saluted us. “We accept your offer.”
Those of us who were ready to fight returned to the museum and selected weapons from the exhibits. I found two short fighting sticks linked by a rusted chain; Ninoh located an ancient whip and grinned from ear to ear.
We caught a stray cat, put it in a sack and planted it on a narrow street not far from the governor’s residence, which three midgets were patrolling. The cat began mewling and all three ran around the corner with their crossbows armed. As they closed in on the sack, lassos flew from the windows of nearby buildings and in seconds the midgets were bound and gagged and hanging upside down in the school gym. The entire operation took less than two minutes, without a single sound to alert others.
“Now for the yacht,” the young captain whispered.
Ninoh and I borrowed a rowboat and headed for the yacht. As we drew near, two midgets loudly demanded to know where we were going. “Lord Draga,” I yelled back, “said to deliver a sample of the local wine to his loyal guards.” I stood and held up several bottles, and their snarls turned into smiles.
“About time someone remembered us,” one said. “Hey, boy, bring it up over here.”
“Lord Draga,” Ninoh added, “ordered us to deliver one bottle per person, not a drop more. But he didn’t tell us how many of you there are.”
“Give us the whole case,” said the second midget, and they both laughed.
“Oh, no!” I said. “He’ll kill us. We’d better go back and tell him that, since we didn’t know how many . . .”
“Now, now,” interrupted the first midget. “You can hand us six bottles. That will do.”
“May I see all of you together?” I asked nervously. “I don’t want Lord Draga to punish me.”
“Lord!” scowled one of the midgets. “If he’s a lord, I’m a horse’s ass. You just wait right there; I’ll call the others.”
When all six midgets stood looking down at us from the deck, I began to count loudly and slowly. “One, two, three . . .”
At “four” the Imperial Guards descended onto the yacht. Three midgets raised their crossbows; Ninoh and I quickly dispatched two and left the third to the first Guard who landed. The other three midgets fell to their knees with hands in the air, scared to death. They were tied up and gagged and delivered to the school gym. We collected their knives and crossbows, located an arsenal of other weapons and loaded everything onto our rowboat.
When we came back ashore we were met with good news: two more patrols had been apprehended, and the only midgets still free on the island were the warlord and six of his henchmen, all still in the governor’s mansion. But I felt the greatest joy when Mirra handed us our swords. “Carry them with pride,” she said.
It was already dawn when the entire resistance force—twelve Imperial Guards, Ninoh, myself, and both armed and unarmed islanders—surrounded the governor’s residence, which stood on the largest square in the center of the city. Then the big discussion about the midgets’ future started. Some said that we cannot harm human beings and the midgets must be set free after giving up their weapons, but were unclear as to what would happen if the midgets refused to disarm. Others said that the killing innocent civilians must be punished by lifetime imprisonment, but since the Island of Peace had no prisons, they should find another island that did and pay them for holding the midgets there. Opponents of this idea argued that many “war heroes” are actually killers in disguise, and if they were free and honored then the midgets should also be set free.
In my opinion, they just didn’t want to pay for the midgets’ incarceration.
Still others said that the midgets must give their word that they won’t come back to this island, and then they can go anywhere they want. There were many noble and smart ideas, but not one that would help to prevent future invasions.
The Imperial Guards were patiently waiting for the outcome of the discussion, and I had a chance to approach the captain. “Excuse me,” I said, “have you ever heard about a boy who flew to this empire on a kite like yours? His name is Hugh.”
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“Hugh is my friend,” I said. “I am looking for him. If you know anything, please tell me.”
“Noble thing, to look for a friend,” the captain replied, his eyes on mine. “Which island did you say you came from?”
I remembered that most islanders have no idea about the outside world. “The Island of Honor and Justice,” I said after a moment of hesitation.
“So this Hugh is from the same island?” he asked. “And was he a slave like you and that girl who fights like a man?”
Just then we noticed movement in the group of the island’s big shots. Utti, the critic of the previous regime, walked cross the square and stood in front of the mansion. He picked up a pebble and tossed it at a second-floor window. Soon the window opened and Draga looked out. He scanned the armed crowd watching him from all sides of the square, spotted Utti, shot him right between the eyes, and slammed the window down.
For ten seconds the square was deathly quiet. Then the mob burst into a frenzied roar. “Kill them! Kill them all!” The twelve Guards scurried into position as armed citizens closed on in the mansion from all sides. Some carried torches, threatening to burn every occupant alive.
I looked around but couldn’t find Ninoh. Noises sounded from inside the house, yelling and running footsteps and a few loud thumps and crashes. A few moments later the front door opened and out came Lord Draga, an empty crossbow in his hands and a gaping slash across his neck. He took three steps forward and fell down dead. No one came after him from within the now silent house.
The islanders stormed inside and found all six of Draga’s bodyguards dead, with either fatal cuts inflicted by a sword or throwing knives still stuck in their bodies. Suddenly Ninoh appeared at my side, outwardly calm, her nostrils flaring like a racehorse’s. She volunteered no explanations and I decided not to ask.
“Bury the dead,” ordered the captain of the Guards, “and then inform everyone there will be a meeting here in the square this evening. There’s a thing or two we need to tell you.”
Exactly what Ninoh and I thought would happen. One invader was defeated, but another one had come in disguise and was planning to stay. They had only pretended to be guardian angels, but they were obviously Sharks. We called for our own meeting first.
“You have weapons now,” we told the islanders. “Here’s the arsenal we took from the yacht and from the midgets on the island. The new occupation can be even bloodier than the midgets’. We’ve heard the horror stories about Shark Island, that it’s the worst place in the entire Thousand Islands Empire. You must show these Sharks that you won’t bend, won’t let them enslave you and your children. All you need to do is surround them with your weapons while we’re talking to them. We’ll let them say what they want at the meeting—and at our signal, they’ll get an answer they didn’t bargain for.”
We came to the meeting in full force—more than a thousand citizens of the Island of Peace, all armed and ready to defend their lives and their freedom. It was late evening and the Moon showed us the way. When we arrived the Guards were waiting for us on the steps of the governor’s mansion. Each one carried a kite and a soda bottle, and wore a sword and a backpack.
We hid our weapons and surrounded them. We even sent islanders in through the back door so they could take aim at their backs through the windows. When the square had filled with people, the young captain’s voice rang out.
“Citizens of the Island of Peace, your freedom is once again in your own hands.” He saluted us and all twelve threw their kites into the air. One by one they floated off and soon disappeared into the night sky.
“What happened?” demanded those at the rear of the crowd. “Where did they go?” asked those at the front. “Why did they come here?” queried others. “What did they want from us?” wondered many who hadn’t seen anything but had heard the story.
Rumors began to fly. “They were in on it with the midgets, and everything was staged by the Emperor.” “They had a hidden agenda all along.” “They heard we were going to attack, and they got scared and ran away” (very popular among the island’s youth). Someone even said, “They’re building a zone of influence,” and since few understood what that meant, many believed and often repeated the statement.
We heard things like “inhuman treatment of animals” referring to the cat in a sack we’d used to lure the patrol into a narrow street. “They should be sued in for excessive force and disproportional response” was repeated often in the local independent newspaper. We overheard Adulia telling a crowd of supporters that, if not for the Sharks’ “interference with the peace negotiation process,” there wouldn’t have been any casualties. Most memorable was Klara’s disgust with the “terrible example of discrimination against short people.”
Safe on our raft, Ninoh turned to me as we rowed beyond the surf. “Do you think the Sharks will return to the Island of Peace?”
“They will if there’s trouble again and they believe they can help,” I assured her.
She frowned and shook her head. “I don’t get it, Nik. Whoever has the force to occupy another island never leaves until they’re forced out. No island or country in the world would come to the rescue and then leave voluntarily.”
I thought about that a bit. “Actually,” I said, “I live in such country. That’s where I came from.”
And for the first time during my journey, I felt like something was missing. I wanted to go back to my own home, to be among my family and friends. I’ll find Hugh and then go home, I decided.
14. Island of Opportunity
“So it’s settled,” Ninoh said as we rowed toward a small group of well-populated islands. “Yes,” I replied. “That is what we will do.” Our decision was final. And not a moment too soon. So that’s it, we told each other; we’ll open a fencing academy.
We both liked the idea very much. We both were good with swords, and tired of wandering the islands with no place to call our own. We decided to settle where we’d find lots of students, groom world-class champions, and became famous for the best fencing school in the Empire.
We landed at the largest of the islands, and soon learned there were no fencing schools at all. It was a rare opportunity and we enthusiastically took it. The first step was to find a good location for our school, but we had no money. We worked as street cleaners until we’d earned enough to rent a space. We went to several sports and country clubs, looked at industrial buildings and semi-basements, but everything was too expensive for us. I suggested we find something that we could convert into an academy by ourselves, which would cost much less.
Someone mentioned that, on a tiny island just offshore from the capital city, there lived a family who occasionally rented out their barn. Off we went. Only a person with a truly vivid imagination could see in this barn a fencing academy. Walls full of holes, a dirt floor, and no electricity or plumbing. It was a disaster, but it was the only place we could afford. We took it.
The little island’s only residents were a woman of about forty years old, Nora, and her son and daughter, Poki and Tamara, both in their early twenties. Nora told us she’d had her kids out of wedlock as a teenager and kept her maiden name, Dodd. She once lived far away with her family, but she got involved with bad people and moved far away from her home. She joked about being both an ethnic minority and an ex-slave, since her former companion had brought her to this island entirely against her will.
From time to time, Nora told us, she went to the neighboring island to clean some apartments and made very little money doing that especially since she did it seldom and only when they were really starving. The young Dodds didn’t like city people. Both had dropped out of school and now helped fisherman clean their boats and nets, and occasionally rented out their old barn for the storage of fishing equipment. We agreed on a price, shook hands all around, and started building our dream.
Every morning Ninoh and I went to the big island to earn money that we’d spend, first on cleaning and repairing the barn, then on turning it into a proper fencing gym. We slept in the corner of the barn and showered at work or in the ocean. I worked as a busboy, and every day brought back food that we shared with the Dodd family. Ninoh walked dogs, ran errands and helped elderly ladies with their shopping and doctors’ appointments.
All three Dodds were currently out of work—their only income was the rent we paid—and they were very much in need of everything. They used to come and watch us working on the barn. They thought we were crazy, but expressed it in a friendly way. Since we agreed, we didn’t mind.
When we were halfway through the repairs we went to a bank and asked for a business loan. The banker came to see the barn, liked us and what we did, and agreed to help us buy the equipment and furnishings we needed. A major victory!
And finally one day it was all done. We stood side by side, looking over the academy we’d built with our own hands. There were no compromises and shortcuts; everything was first-class and done with care and love. We were proud of ourselves, really proud.
The next day we took our swords into the capital city, obtained an entertainment permit (we’d learned our lesson), and performed mock battles on every corner and square. The following day we performed in lobbies of large buildings, near the university and in public places. At each performance we were surrounded by people and found someone interested in learning fencing. We were happy. We decided to charge a very small fee to encourage enrollment throughout the population.
At last the day came when we expected our first students. Excited and happy, we hung up a sign proclaiming our grand opening, put on our new outfits with the academy’s logo, turned on all the lights, made sure everything was in order, and waited. The first person to enter the gym was Nora Dodd.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said, all smiles. “We’re all so pleased with the magnificent job you did, repairing the barn and everything. You’ve made it such wonderful place that it simply can’t be rented for the ridiculous price you’re paying us.”
“But we did all the work,” I protested. “We used our own money and time to make it wonderful.”
“Without us,” Ninoh added hotly, “it’d still be the same old dump of a barn—which no one wanted anymore anyway!”
“Yes,” Nora said calmly, “I understand that, but we can rent it for twice as much now, and there are people ready to pay more than you are paying. However, as a courtesy, I’m offering this barn to you first.”
“But we shook hands,” I insisted. “Don’t you remember that you rented it to us for five years? You were so happy when we agreed to rent it for so long that . . .”
“Yes, yes, I remember all that, but everything is so different now. And we need money so badly that I simply can’t pass up an offer like that. . . unless, of course, you agree to meet it . . .”
Our students began to arrive and we decided to ignore the incident. Nothing would spoil our joy of opening our own academy, we told each other. We’ll just work a little longer and a little harder to cover this unexpected expense. The Dodds are so poor and desperate, we reasoned, that they couldn’t resist the temptation of the higher offer.
We got great students and had fun with them. The trickle of income made us even happier. Our dreams were coming to fruition. I started thinking about buying a speedboat, and Ninoh was planning an addition to the barn: her very own private shower.
One day the Dodd siblings appeared on our doorstep, asking if we needed any help. They offered to clean up the gym, run our errands and bring our meals, and any other little things that “take up your valuable time.” We declined with thanks, explaining that we could barely make ends meet now, but perhaps in the future . . .
That’s when Tamara began to cry softly, saying she and Poki had always wanted to do something meaningful but didn’t know how or what, and adding that they envied us.
We felt ashamed. Two human beings asked for our help and we turned our backs. Ninoh and I both assured them they were welcome to work for us. We said we could pay very little, but were willing to start teaching them fencing for free, so that someday they could become instructors and work alongside us.
Tamara and Poki squealed with joy, saying we’d given their lives purpose and calling us their guardian angels. It was very flattering and we felt even happier. Not only were we doing something we liked, making our living from it, and making kids and their parents happy and proud, but also employing people and improving the quality of their lives. What could be better that that?
For two weeks the young Dodds did simple chores and ran errands before their fencing lessons. Every day they borrowed a little money, so when payday came around they owed us nearly as much as they’d earned. They were both very unhappy with the little they received and complained that they had worked very hard and were counting on much more. We tried to explain that they’d taken most of their pay as advances, but they were dead set that we had somehow cheated them.
Later that day Nora showed up to inform us that the island council had decided that the minimum hourly wage must be twice what we were paying her children.
“Island council?” Ninoh’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that?”
“Do you think we live in a lawless society?” Nora sniffed. “You probably thought you could exploit us without anyone noticing. But the council will put a stop to it. You’ll see.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Just where is this council? We have a right to tell our side of the story. We have all the facts, and we can prove every word we said.”
“Don’t confuse me with facts,” Nora snapped. “You want to see the council? No problem. The population of this Island decided that the council will have three members, and elected myself, Tamara and Poki.”
Ninoh snorted. “Who would elect you?”
“The population of this island,” Nora shot back.
“But we live here too now,” I protested, “and we weren’t told about any election.”
Nora was now sneering openly. “We were elected by a majority: three votes with two absentees. Even if you’d been present, it wouldn’t change a thing. Double my children’s wages, or else!”
We couldn’t pay more. We had to say no.
The next morning we found the barn nearly covered with ugly graffiti accusing us of being unfair to minorities, of being slave masters, of being cheats and thieves. Even the dock and landing had been vandalized. We saw several boats carrying our students; some turned back, but many came for their usual training session. Some of the parents expressed their concerns and advised us to resolve the conflict as soon as possible. Don’t get mixed up in this labor mess, especially since minorities and ex-slaves are involved, they warned us. You’ll have half the island demonstrating
against racial bias. No one will even try to understand your side of such an emotional issue. You’ll lose your business, even if you did nothing wrong. Everyone will lose, they said.
The only way to increase the Dodds’ wages was to raise our students’ tuition fees. When we did, we lost two of our best students. One in particular was our best hope for future competitions. Their parents could no longer afford our lessons. Several others dropped to one weekly lesson instead of two or three, but somehow we managed to keep our doors open. I decided to buy my speedboat later; Ninoh said the gym’s shower would do for the time being.
One afternoon the young Dodds appeared, both unusually pleasant and smiling. Tamara carried a steaming pot with both hands. “We made a delicious soup,” she said sweetly, “and wanted to share it with you.” We thought this heralded a new era in our relations, and invited them in. Tamara carried the pot to the middle of the gym and spilled its contents onto the floor. Poki was right behind her; he slipped on the soup and down he went. We hurried to help him as Nora and a small man with a large briefcase entered the gym.
“What’s this I see?” the man exclaimed. “A young person on the floor. What happened here?” “He came to work,” I began, “and his sister spilled the soup . . .”
“Aha!” the man cut in. “He fell while working here. Everything is clear. I happen to be Mr. Frank, Esquire, attorney at law. Where is your proof of employee accident insurance?”
“But they came in and offered to share the soup with us . . .” But I was talking to no one. Mr. Frank was busily photographing everything and measuring the size of the gym, the temperature of the walls and the depth of the spilled soup. Then without another word he left, followed closely by all three Dodds.
He appeared an hour later with a proposition: either Ninoh and I make the Dodds partners in our enterprise, or they take us to court and we end up in prison. He said that we recklessly allowed a person with a pot of soup to enter a gym where young athletes exercise, that we illegally employ people without reporting to the labor department, that we have inadequate insurance coverage, and that we molest children. That last accusation so enraged me that Ninoh had to hold me back, for a change. Mr. Frank scurried for the door, then turned and announced that he’d be back in twenty-four hours with the police, to close the gym and arrest us.
We couldn’t sleep a wink all night, and by morning had decided that giving up half of our academy was better than going to prison.
First thing the Dodds did as co-owners was to hire themselves in administrative positions that were totally unnecessary for the operation of the business. We didn’t need an assistant to the president, director of personnel, or government liaison. What we needed was a clerk, a janitor and an errand runner, but such work was beneath them now. If we want a clean gym, we were told, we could do it ourselves.
To say we were in a state of shock was an understatement. Then we learned that two new fencing schools were opening on the large island. The owners wanted to duplicate our success and brought in good fencing instructors from other islands.
“We need to get rid of them,” stated Mr. Frank, a frequent visitor to the island now that he too had stock in our academy.
“We don’t need to get rid of anybody,” Ninoh argued. “We’ll just offer more services and competitive prices. As long as we’re better than they are, we’ll have plenty of students.”
Our new partners thought differently. There was a feverish wining and dining of big shots from the capital city, and one day Mr. Frank announced that our school would now receive government subsidies and our students would be learning for free. “No other school will get such subsidies,” he said proudly: “The competition is dead!”
“This is wrong,” I protested hotly. “We refuse to teach here any longer.” “In that case, Tamara and Poki will teach,” Mr. Frank said blandly. Ninoh made a rude noise. “Those two brats can barely handle a sword.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now if our teachers are any good,” Mr. Frank replied cheerfully. “With no other schools in our island group to compete with us, why bother? And besides, soon we’ll be paid whether we have students or not.” His tone cooled. “Your services are no longer required. You’re free to go; maybe you can find some rich clients who can afford private instructors.”
We stood firm, and his voice became icy. “I am now president of this academy, voted in by a majority of shareholders. To consolidate our holdings, I am marrying Nora Dodd.” His lips twisted into a crooked smile. “It will be a closely held corporation, and we’ll prevent anyone from opening similar schools. A friend of mine issues educational licenses, and I’m thinking about hiring his wife as our vice-president of public relations.” He chuckled with satisfaction.
Ninoh couldn’t take it anymore. “Well, why limit yourself to fencing? Why not all sports, and the arts too? Why not organize other academies, and kill any possible competition? You won’t have to worry about finding good teachers or good equipment, or make any repairs beyond the bare minimum. Anybody who wants to study sports or arts will have to come to you, so quality won’t matter. You can tell your fellow citizens that this program will bring sports and arts to the poorest kids, not just those who can afford it. They might even believe you.”
“Interesting idea,” Mr. Frank murmured as his eyes glazed over.
We left him dreaming about killing off hordes of competitors and becoming the local czar of sports and arts education.
“All my life I’ve heard about bad capitalists,” Ninoh said as the Islands of Opportunity faded in our wake, “but I’ve always thought of workers as being oppressed, and that people who are oppressed are the good guys.”
“Give them an inch . . . ,” I said with a shrug.
“Compromise,” Ninoh snorted. “That’s what killed our academy. Pity and compromise. We need to cut those feelings out of our hearts. That’s the only way to build good schools, the only way to conduct business. Then everyone will win.”
The sun was already low and we began looking for our next stop. “No more enterprises,” I sighed.
“Oh no,” Ninoh said firmly. “No more compromises.”
15. Island of Cultural Superiority
On some islands people were friendly and supportive. On others they were aggressive and suspicious. On this one they didn’t pay the slightest attention to us, our raft, our accents or behavior. They looked at us through empty eyes without really seeing. Only a few smiled in our direction or murmured a greeting.
They weren’t really communicating with each other either. They were watching TV instead. The screens were everywhere—in store windows and office towers, in taxicabs and on the sides of buses, in every public place and even in restrooms. Most islanders carried small TVs in their hands, watched TV on their cell phones, or wore tiny TVs instead of wristwatches. Some of them had small screens installed in their glasses and instead of the real life around them they saw whatever the broadcasting station was showing them at that moment.
People were watching TV everywhere. They were driving cars and watching TV, crossing streets and watching TV, conducting traffic and watching TV, making speeches and watching TV, getting married and watching TV, performing surgeries and watching TV. There were many accidents on this island, but the people didn’t notice because they were watching TV and they knew and believed only in what they saw on TV.
The roads were crumbling, the buildings dirty. People looked like they hadn’t bathed for years. The garbage filling the streets obviously piled up over time, and the stench of decomposing trash invaded the buildings. In the city’s official center the buildings looked a little cleaner, but even in the archways leading to private yards the ground was nearly covered with garbage, urine, and the feces of man and beast. When we slipped through one of the archways and beyond the line of buildings we saw row after row of dilapidated houses, empty and dark.
But the city was well designed and its architecture was magnificent. In the not-so-distant past this island had obviously been a great center of high culture and forward thinking. “Decay everywhere, but why?” Ninoh wondered aloud.
The tallest building displayed three huge letters: ICS. We asked a middle-aged woman who was passing by and were told ICS stands for the greatest Island in the Empire: the Island of Cultural Superiority.
“What happened here?” we pressed her. “Was there a war?” “Yes,” she replied solemnly. “Some forty years ago.”
Stunned, we asked her why the islanders hadn’t removed the debris and rebuilt the ruins, opened up the theaters and museums and staged street performances, planted trees and flowers, painted everything in bright colors and changed their lives for the better.
“We didn’t get any help,” she said grimly. “No one cares about us. That’s why.” She had very serious face, and kept one eye on the palm-sized TV she carried. When she mentioned no one helping them we saw tears in her eyes, but then she concentrated on the screen and her tears disappeared. We looked at it too, and beheld the streets, people, stores, restaurants and boutiques of an unknown city.
“How I hate them!” she spat. When we asked whom she meant, she replied, “The Sharks,” and pointed at the screen. “Them!”
“But why do you hate them?” Ninoh asked. “Did they do this? Did they ruin your cities, kill your people?”
“No,” the woman said slowly, “actually, they helped us. Civil war broke out on our island; brothers were killing brothers. The Sharks helped the freedom fighters, who were overthrowing the bloodthirsty regime. Back then we had more prisons than schools, more military parades than concerts. The Sharks cut their supply channels and the regime fell. That’s why we’re free now. We are a democracy.” Her eyes shone with pride.
But an instant later she again focused on her TV; first she smiled and then laughed quite happily.
We too watched the report of an accident, apparently on the streets of Shark Island. It was hard to understand why she was so happy to see accidents anywhere, so we turned and walked away. I don’t think she even noticed.
It was becoming dark and the street lights came on. Some were missing bulbs, on others the glass was shattered or missing and some streets were quite dark. There were no lights near the empty and ruined houses. Huge screens lit up everywhere, all displaying the very same program the woman had been watching earlier: life on Shark Island. All around us, people on the streets were glued to the screens.
Under a street light stood an old lady, handing out leaflets to passersby. People took them without looking and immediately threw them away. The ground near the old lady was strewn with leaflets, but we read the one she gave us. It advertised rooms for rent just around the corner. The leaflet promised clean air, a real breakfast, a hot tub and lots of TV sets around the house.
We decided to take the offer and were soon knocking on the front door.
No one answered. We knocked harder. Still no answer. Ninoh pushed the door and it opened. We entered a small house that smelled of stale food and cleaning chemicals and immediately heard the familiar sounds of television.
There were five people in the main room watching what appeared to be a local soap opera and live local action. I felt like I was peeking through a keyhole at neighbors who knew I was watching and were performing just for me. “Oh my precious flower, my kindred soul,” a very tired-looking man in his late forties was saying, “will you be mine forever? Will you make my life a heaven on earth? If not, I will surely die . . . yes, most definitely die . . .”
The object of his affection waited coolly for him to finish, giving no hint of her answer. “He really could die,” I thought. “He could die any moment. If not her hand, she could at least offer him a glass of water.”
The five viewers— a younger couple, an older couple and a child—were frozen in their seats.
They didn’t move, didn’t talk, didn’t even breath. They were so absorbed in the story that they didn’t notice us entering the room. “Should we leave?” Ninoh whispered. I didn’t answer because just then something absolutely unbelievable happened, something I wouldn’t have expected in a thousand years. The woman on the screen looked directly into the camera and spoke. “And now I’m sure you’re all hungry, so go and have your supper. Come back in half an hour and I’ll answer this heartfelt plea.” And the screen went blank.
The five viewers came to life. Both women went to the kitchen and returned with frozen packages labeled “TV Dinner.” One silently counted heads, including ours, and put seven packages on the table. Both men placed chairs around the table and set out some silverware and a pitcher of water. Everything was done without a word. Soon we were all sitting around the table, opening our dinner packages. On mine was printed “As seen on TV!” and on Ninoh’s, “As advertised!” Both packages were ice cold and the food was impossible to eat. All five of our hosts not only ate their frozen entrees but praised them, albeit rather oddly. “Mar-ve-lous,” the older woman articulated heavily. “Tasty and delicious,” the younger one agreed brightly. “Chock full of nutrients,” the older man stated firmly. All around the table the happy faces nodded in agreement—and continued to ignore the fact that strangers were in their house, sitting at their table, and pretending to eat their food.
After a few mouthfuls they stopped eating and silence settled around the table. Each of them, even the child, checked their watches several times and kept an eye on the dark TV screen. They had no idea how to kill time before the broadcast resumed. Then the younger man turned to the younger woman and said, “Oh my precious flower, my kindred soul!” Everyone turned to face him. This was the first sign of interest in the real world we’d seen on the island. “Will you be mine forever? Will you make my life a heaven on earth? If not, I will surely die . . . yes, most definitely die . . .” He mimicked the inflections the TV actor had used. The woman looked at him, then glanced uncomfortably at everyone else and said, “Are you joking, or what?” He wasn’t joking. “But I am yours,” she continued, “I mean, I’m your wife. Don’t you remember? We have a child together, for heaven’s sake.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“Yes, I would most definitely die . . .” he continued, not paying the slightest attention to her words.
At that moment the TV set came alive and the woman from the soap opera appeared. “Did you forget to clear the table and throw away the scraps?” The whole family quickly obeyed and then resumed their seats around the screen. Everything was just as it was when we arrived. We said goodbye and thanks, but no one heard us.
We walked toward the shore and the magnificent sunset. Along the way we saw the same sunset on all the TV screens, which everyone was watching with admiration and awe. There was a group of homeless people eating scraps as they huddled around a small TV. Mothers were pushing strollers and watching the sunset on the TVs built into the handles. On the beach we encountered a group of people standing with their backs to the waves, admiring the breathtaking colors on a billboard-sized screen. We asked why they didn’t turn around to see the beauty of nature with their own eyes. Only one of them briefly looked back but quickly returned his attention to the broadcast.
“Such a wonderful view,” they told each other.
Just then a police siren wailed and we turned to see a patrol car speeding toward us. The car screeched to a halt, and two officers and a civilian jumped out. The officers looked closely at Ninoh, then one asked the civilian, “Is this the one?”
The man came closer, examined Ninoh’s face and confirmed, “It is.”
“Is what?” I asked.
“Move aside,” the older officer growled, and turned to Ninoh. “You, come with us.”
Within seconds Ninoh had been handcuffed and shoved into the patrol car. The siren wailed again as the car sped away down the street.
“What happened?” I asked the man they’d left behind. “Why did they arrest her?” “She robbed my house,” he snapped.
“What? She what? When?” I demanded.
“Two months ago,” he replied. “Two months ago exactly today. Or maybe even more than two months . . . or less, I don’t remember. The officers didn’t have time to look for her when it all happened, but they had time today and we got lucky right away. I tell you, she’s a very dangerous person. She ate all of our breakfast of champions and stole our cat food. Or maybe we forgot to buy it. And all the while my entire family was watching the morning program. I hope they execute her on the spot.”
“But we just arrived on your island,” I shouted. “It wasn’t her; it couldn’t have been. You’ve made a horrible mistake!”
“Oh,” he said, “You think so? Well, I didn’t actually see who ate the cat food; I was watching my favorite morning show. It’s about these brave mice that fight elephants. Do you watch it? I especially love . . .”
“Look,” I said quickly, “if you’re not sure it was my friend who robbed your house, if you actually didn’t see who did it, then maybe we should go to the police station and tell them.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Why? Because they’ve got the wrong man, I mean girl,” I sputtered. “Because she didn’t do anything wrong, but they think she did because you said so!”
“Look!” he yelled suddenly, pointing behind me. I turned to look but saw nothing. When I turned back he was gone. I didn’t see him anywhere. I ran off in the direction the police car had taken.
After three or four hours of running around, it finally became apparent that I could find no trace of the patrol car or Ninoh. No one knew where the nearest police station was. No one knew where arrested people were taken, or where I might find any information about the detainees. People just stared into my face, then back at their screens and I finally understood that they simply didn’t know.
And then in the middle of my despair I saw Ninoh. To be precise, I saw her image on a huge TV screen atop the mission for the homeless. Ninoh stood before a judge, her hands cuffed and her sword gone. Across the courtroom I saw the man who’d escaped from me on the beach. He was pointing at Ninoh and saying, “I identified her the instant I saw her. She was in my house and ate my food.”
The judge looked at Ninoh. “Have you ever entered anyone’s house while the whole family was watching TV?” Her face was somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
I prayed Ninoh would answer “Never!”—but she replied, “I can’t say that, Your Honor.”
The audience heaved a collective sigh, and a man appeared in a box in one corner of the screen.
He held a microphone and spoke directly to his TV audience, ignoring everyone in the studio courtroom. “Interesting development,” he intoned. “It is fascinating to see how justice on our island is superior to any other—especially the so-called justice of Shark Island. You’ll see for yourselves how even the most dangerous criminals, like this one, suddenly become truthful and forthcoming.” He and his box disappeared from the screen.
The judge raised her hand; the murmur from the audience subsided, and she continued. “Have you ever eaten someone’s food without their consent?”
“You could say that,” Ninoh said calmly.
The box appeared in the corner once more. “Let’s see what the judge of our famous night court has up her sleeve for this perverse offender,” the man with the mike said, and again disappeared. I suddenly realized that he was the man who had offered his hand in that soap opera. And now I recognized the judge—the woman to whom the hand was offered.
The “judge,” now ready to make her ruling, raised her hand for silence. “Twenty-five years in solitary confinement,” she pronounced. I saw astonishment in Ninoh’s eyes, and then the whole street around me exploded with delighted cheers. They’re all insane, I thought. I’ve got to find that “judge” and explain that Ninoh wasn’t here two months ago.
It wasn’t hard to find the studio; the TV tower was visible from everywhere. I arrived just as the night court audience was leaving. At the entrance stood an old man who looked like a security guard. “I need to see the judge,” I told him urgently.
“The judge is here from two until three in the morning,” he said. “Come back tomorrow.” “But I must see her today,” I pleaded. “It’s a matter of justice.”
“Ah, justice,” he replied. “Then show me your documents.”
“I don’t have any documents,” I said.
“Do you have any identification?” I shook my head no. “Maybe a travel document? A student card? Library card?” I was getting a headache. “Perhaps a little something to bribe me?”
“Sorry,” I said, “I have nothing, nothing at all.”
“I know,” he sighed. “Those who seek justice usually have no money. Come in and don’t waste any more of my valuable time.
I finally entered the building. All the rooms were dark except one at the end of the corridor. The half-open door had a sign, “Staff Only,” and another on the door knob: “Do Not Disturb.” I pushed the door wide and looked inside.
I saw a man in a three-piece suit pacing rapidly and a woman sitting with her back to me on a round bed, throwing her belongings into an open suitcase. The lovers from the soap opera and the Night Court host and judge were quarreling loudly.
“I don’t give a damn about the thrill you’re having getting your kicks,” she was saying. “I want to go home.”
“But honey,” he protested, practically running from one corner to another, “this is what we always dreamed about. It’s what makes us tick. We can do anything, make the whole island do anything we want, and they’ll gladly die for us. And you’re playing every role you ever dreamed of. Isn’t that what you wanted all along?”
“I don’t want it anymore,” the judge replied and slammed the suitcase: “I want to play to people, not puppets.”
Then they noticed me. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?” the host demanded angrily.
“My name is Nik,” I said, “and I’m looking for Hugh. I mean, right now, I’m looking for Ninoh. I mean, I’m looking for justice.” I realized they understood nothing I’d said, but before I could explain, the judge turned to the host. “Well, Carl, here’s your opportunity to get out—as you promised so many times. I’m leaving, with or without you. Prove that you’re a man of your word.”
Carl looked at me desperately, then at the judge and back at me. Then something clicked in him, like he deflated in a split second. Now a very different man stood before me, thinking hard, deciding. Again I felt he came to a conclusion; now was looking at me with the determination of one who has made up his mind and intends to follow through. “All right, Carlotta,” he said, “if you wish so. But don’t tell me later that you didn’t mean it. We’re going home.” She began to quietly cry, and he took her in his arms. “I love you, honey. We’re together, forever and ever. That’s what’s important, right?”
I had no idea if what I was standing there witnessing was a drama or a comedy or maybe even a tragedy. But I knew that I had somehow participated in something very important to them without knowing or understanding my own role.
“Well, Nik,” Carl said, “now you’re the producer and the director and the screenwriter and the star, and you can call yourself God if you want. Any questions?”
“I have a question about Ninoh,” I said. “Who is Ninoh?” Carlotta asked.
“The girl you sentenced today to twenty-five years of solitary confinement,” I answered. “Don’t you remember?”
“A girl?” Carlotta thought hard. “I’m almost sure I know whom you mean . . .”
“Your verdict was wrong,” I cut in. “I’m sorry, but she wasn’t even on this island when that crime was committed. She’s completely innocent.”
“Ah, well then,” Carlotta said brightly, “you can tell the chief of police to release her.”
“Thank you, Judge,” I said. “May I tell him you sent me?”
“Sure, if you want. You can tell them I said so, or you can do it yourself,” she answered as she put on a long coat and picked up her suitcase and umbrella. I could see that she was happy. She looked around, smiled, and turned to Carl. “Ready, honey?”
“Wait,” I yelped, “you’re leaving? Are you sure they’ll let Ninoh out? Where are you going, in case I need to get hold of you?
“He doesn’t get it,” Carl said, shaking his head.
“He’ll understand soon enough, dear,” Carlotta assured him. “The important thing is, we’re going home.”
“But where is ‘home’?” I wailed in despair, certain that once they were gone, Ninoh would remain in their prison forever.
“The best place in the entire Empire: Shark Island,” Carlotta beamed. “At last, I’m finally going home.”
Carl was now ready as well, wearing casual clothes and carrying a duffel bag. He too looked happier and more relaxed than before. They held hands as they walked down the corridor toward the exit.
I followed, astonished and bewildered. “You’re Sharks? But you hate Shark Island, right? You air programs showing all the things about Shark Island that make people hate it. You despise it, you said so many times, and now you say you want to go back there?”
“Why, we love Shark Island,” Carlotta replied. “We love everything about it—the people, the weather, everything. There’s no other place in the world where men and women can live as free.”
By now we’d reached the lobby, which was empty except for the old man who let me in. “Be well,” Carlotta told him warmly. “We’re leaving, for good, and Nik here will take care of things from now on. He’s looking for Hugh, for Ninoh and for justice. I hope he finds them all.” She smiled at me.
“But why do you blame every bad thing that happens here on Shark Island?” I asked again.
Just before they disappeared into the night, Carl turned and said, “We’re entertainers. We do what the public wants.”
And they were gone.
“Don’t be long,” the old man warned me after explaining how to find the jail. “They show reruns during the early morning hours, but by breakfast time people have to have their programs. Since you are now in charge, please be on time. I saw what happened once when a fire started at the station and there were no programs for four whole hours, and I wouldn’t want that to happen again in my lifetime. The consequences of being late can be devastating.”
I didn’t care about their consequences, their programs or their reruns. All I cared about was finding Ninoh and getting her out of jail.
At the police station I found the desk sergeant seated behind a large desk in the middle of the hall. He apparently loved reruns. Whatever he was doing, one eye was always on the screen.
“I’m here to restore justice,” I announced.
Apparently the desk sergeant didn’t care about justice.
“The judge told me to tell you that the girl whom she sentenced to twenty-five years of solitary confinement must be released immediately. She’s not guilty at all,” I told him.
“Carlotta isn’t a real judge,” he drawled, relaxing back into his large armchair. “I don’t care what she says.” I saw that he was honest. He honestly didn’t care for what the judge said.
“But she put my friend in a real jail,” I argued. “Do you intend to honor her ruling? If Carlotta isn’t a real judge, then Ninoh isn’t a real prisoner. I’m staying right here until you release her.”
“Look, kid,” he said patiently. “If we got paid like the police do on Shark Island, for example, we’d do our jobs better. But since we’re underpaid and overworked, I’m not going to waste my time and energy on your personal problem. Got that? Why should I? It’s your problem; you resolve it. I have far more important matters at hand. Tomorrow the entire police force and the teachers’ union go on strike together to demand more game shows. And we’ll get them, no matter what!”
Apparently no one on this island cared about anything except TV.
I plopped down on a nearby bench and became aware of the buzz of activity in the station house.
Officers and civilians came and went through various doors; arrests were being made, attorneys were haggling in a corner, and domestic violence erupted briefly. A couple of drunks shared the dregs of their bottle and fell asleep at my feet, their TVs still on. I was not about to move from that bench, and no one seemed to notice as I cautiously pulled up my feet.
At eight a.m. sharp everything changed. Everybody stopped what they were doing and focused their full attention on TV screens. The room became quiet, then utterly and uncomfortably silent. The desk sergeant sat upright and rapped on his screen, a very disturbed look on his face. The police captain burst into the hall, stared at the sergeant’s TV, gulped and disappeared back into his office.
I inched close enough to see the dark screen. The desk sergeant stood up and walked away down the hall, checking each office as he went. Every TV was dark; every officer, offender, clerk and victim seemed agitated and confused. A child began to cry and then another; even their parents ignored them. People in line started quarreling, and a scuffle broke out. A female officer ran outside, shrieking hysterically. Seconds later, we all cringed at the unmistakable sounds of a car crash.
The police station exploded in an uproar of cries, angry voices, slamming doors and racing footsteps. The islanders looked suddenly haggard and terrified, like addicts suffering from involuntary drug withdrawal. Someone yelled, “The Sharks! The Sharks!” and the crowd picked up the familiar chant and swarmed onto the streets. “Kill the Sharks! Kill the Sharks! Burn their homes! Kill their children!” The shouts soon rang from every direction.
I raced down the corridor and up the stairs, searching as I ran for the detention center. I soon found the holding cells, and in every cell one or two hysterical people. Their TVs lay broken on the floor, bits of glass and metal scattered everywhere. The solitary confinement section occupied the rear wall.
Ninoh was extremely happy to see me; I could see it in her eyes through the small grated window in the heavy door. But all she said was, “These people are insane, Nik. Find their TV station and have them announce on TV that the police have to let me go. It’s the only way.”
A minute later I was fighting my way back to the TV tower through the terrifying streets.
Accidents were happening everywhere. People ran around screaming and shouting; some started fights, others wept like children. I saw no less than ten fires and not one single firefighter. A growing crowd was seething outside the station; I elbowed my way through and the old guard let me in. “I told you so,” he sniffed.
“Yes, sir, you did,” I panted. “What do I do now?” He gave terse instructions and I sprinted off.
Once inside the studio I followed his orders exactly. The studio burst into light as I moved to the center of the room and looked directly into lens of the huge camera. I actually felt the crowds on the street freeze. “Now,” I said clearly, “the police will take care of all accidents and traffic problems. Go! The firefighters will take care of all fires, and the doctors and nurses will take care of their patients. Go! Do it NOW!”
“The chief of police,” I continued, “will release detainee Ninoh immediately, return her weapon, and deliver her to this studio. On the double! Until she’s brought here safe and sound and armed, there will be no game shows, no reruns, no programs at all. Do you understand? Do you all understand?” The air seemed to vibrate with the sound of a distant “yes,” as if thousands of people had exhaled in unison.
I waited. The crowd outside the station waited. The whole island waited while the chief of police brought Ninoh to me. “Wow!” she said as they entered the studio. “You really got them by the balls, Nik.”
I rushed to greet her at the door. The chief never took his eyes off the monitor in the studio, waiting for the next command. “Chief,” I said, “have you ever heard about a boy who flew to these Islands using a kite and a bottle of sparkling water? His name is Hugh. Does that ring a bell?”
No answer. He didn’t even glance at me. All his attention was on the monitor.
I returned to my position in front of the camera and repeated the question. Now that I was talking on screen, the chief responded immediately.
“No sir!” He snapped to attention. “Never heard about such boy, sir.” “You can go,” I sighed, and he did.
“Wow!” Ninoh repeated.
“Let’s have some fun,” I said, and hoisted a portable camera onto my shoulder. Ninoh and I went out into the streets, broadcasting all over the island as we walked. We took turns using the camera and watching each other on every TV we passed.
“Everybody jump!” I said, and everyone jumped.
“Now, everyone sing,” Ninoh said, and everyone began to sing.
“Now, everyone turn to your neighbor and say ‘Stu-Pid,’” I ordered cheerfully, and everyone on the Island of Cultural Superiority turned to their neighbor and said, “Stu-Pid.”
“This is stupid,” Ninoh said.
“Yep, stupid but funny,” I grinned.
“No, it was funny but stupid,” she countered.
“Shark Island is the best place in the world,” I told the camera from the middle of the main square. Hundreds of people were walking by. All of them were watching TV, either their own or one of the dozen billboard-sized screens all around the square. “Do you agree that Shark Island is the best place in the entire world?” I asked, and heard hundreds, no, thousands of people answer “Agree.”
I turned the camera on Ninoh. “Shark Island is the worst place in the entire world,” she said. “Do you agree?” And we heard the people saying, “Agree.”
“Say NO to all those people who emit gasses into the atmosphere,” I shouted, and we heard the entire population of the island shout “NO!”
“Cows emit more gasses than the entire human civilization,” Ninoh insisted when the camera focused again on her. “There is no global warming, only global cooling! We must emit more gasses into the atmosphere!” And the entire population of the island began to do just that.
“This is a direct order to the commander of the island’s army,” I told the camera. “Evacuate the broadcast station and blow it to pieces.”
“Run,” Ninoh gasped. “I can’t breathe here anymore.”
And we ran like we never ran before. Like we were running for our lives.
16. Island of Fairness
Do you love tomatoes?
I love to eat them, but otherwise, no.
—An old Georgian joke
“We have no unemployment on the Island of Fairness. Zero, zilch, nada, none. No other island in the entire Empire can make that claim,” boasted the owner of a diner where Ninoh and I were washing dishes in exchange for the hearty lunch he’d served us. “Ours is the best island of them all.”
That was nice to hear. The island was really nice. The people were nice. The streets were clean. Even the air was soft and warm.
“Your entire population works?” we asked incredulously. “How is that possible?”
“Our island is famous for its marble and granite,” he said, “and we ship stone products all over the Thousand Islands Empire. We have no competition.” He was very proud of that as well.
“But no unemployment,” I said, “means that all disabled persons, all mothers of small children, and even people who don’t want to work all have jobs. And in such a difficult industry! Getting stone, then making products out of it isn’t exactly an easy thing to do.”
“We used to have a problem with people being left out,” the owner explained, “but the two partners who owned the stone factory split the company, and life on the island changed. One of the partners is a very good man, and he employed everyone.”
This was very useful information. We needed money to continue our journey, and decided to find temporary jobs at one of the factories. We asked our host to hold our swords for us and went job hunting. We followed his directions and soon saw two offices across the street from each other, with “Help Wanted” signs in the front windows. One company was called “Better Stone” and the other “Best Stone.” Several people were lined up in front of the Better Stone office, but none at Best Stone. We naturally went where the people were.
“The owner is a great guy,” they raved. “He gives women two years for maternity leave. He says that babies need their mothers at home, not at work. When someone is sick, he never even asks for a doctor’s note, and pays for all of his employees’ medicine. He’s like father to us, even better than father.”
“And the other guy?”
“Don’t even think about going there,” we were told. “If you’re late to work by even five minutes, you get fined. If you’re sick, he’ll pay only what he agreed to in writing and no more. And don’t
come to him asking for more money. He says he monitors everyone and knows exactly when his employees are eligible for a raise or promotion. He says that it’s all written in the employment contract, which some say is over hundred pages long. To be fair, he does give employee bonuses, but only what is written in that contract of his. He’s not a pleasant man to deal with, either.”
“If that’s true,” I told Ninoh, “his people would all be eager to leave him and work for Better Stone. He’d lose all his good workers to the competition and fail. But this guy isn’t failing. Something’s wrong.”
“I’ll try my luck with the nice guy,” Ninoh decided. “Why wouldn’t you go to the other side and try to find a job there?”
So I got a job at Best Stone, and Ninoh at Better Stone. After our first shift, we compared notes.
“I’m getting paid more than you and working shorter hours,” Ninoh grinned. I grunted. “If I’m on time every day and meet my quota, I’ll get a bonus,” she added gleefully.
I sighed. “I was told that being on time and producing my quota doesn’t qualify me for a bonus. That’s what I was hired to do. If I don’t, I’ll get fired. But if I do more, I’ll be rewarded.”
“We have elegant, comfortable furniture and beautiful artwork in the employees’ lounge,” Ninoh said.
“In our factory everything is efficient and clean,” I countered.
“If we make mistakes or damage the stone a little, the owner doesn’t fine us; he says we’re all human and the customer won’t complain.”
“Our factory never ships damaged products,” I said proudly. “Quality is our trademark.”
“Our owner gives loans to those workers who want to buy their own houses but have no down payments. His people are very grateful to him.”
“Our owner says everyone must plan their expenses and never buy anything they can’t afford.”
“The biggest sign in the Better Stone factory reads ‘Business exists to make people happy,’” Ninoh reported.
“Business exists to make profit. If it doesn’t, it dies,” I quoted from the brochure given to every new Best Stone employee.
“How warm and kind the one is, and how cold and dry the other,” Ninoh sighed. “You and I can work for a week and leave, but those poor people have to spend their whole lives with that guy. It’s so unfair, Nik.”
“But none of his workers are complaining,” I pointed out.
“They’re probably afraid to open their mouths, poor things,” she replied bitterly.
We worked hard for a week and gave our notice. And on our last day, life as the islanders knew it ended. The island stores received a shipment of products made from natural stones for much less than both Best Stone and Better Stone charged.
The island’s wisest people offered various explanations. One said the new “stone” was actually plastic, but couldn’t prove it. Another mentioned prison islands where labor was free. Others talked about alien technologies that enabled the competition to undercut both monopolies. But the facts remained: the competition had arrived, and for the first time in their history the islanders were facing the challenges of the real world.
Panic reigned at Better Stone. Managers were running around, trying to figure out how to lower operating costs. The owner stayed locked in his office and, according to rumor, had aged twenty years. He called one emergency meeting after another. At the end of the day he announced that his costs were higher than the competition’s sales prices and he was closing the factory. He also told his workers that he needs back all the money he loaned them for the down payments on their houses. He owed the banks so much money, he said, that they had recalled every loan he’d made to his workers and begun foreclosure procedures. His beloved workers were about to lose their jobs and their homes, he wept. Chaos ensued.
At Best Stone the atmosphere was different. The owner called a management meeting to discuss the competition’s products, their own price structure, and how best to counter the assault. He had been setting aside stabilization and development funds all along, and now was the time to use them. Because his company hadn’t taken out any unnecessary loans, banks were lining up to offer millions in restructuring funds.
A decision was made to split the production line in two, and introduce higher quality designer goods. The simpler, ordinary line was stripped of some fancy additions and now resembled the competition’s products. For an entire year, the owner told his employees, Best Stone would hold its biggest sale in history and undercut the competition’s prices. “We’ve got name brand recognition,” he said, “great relations with our suppliers, and a well-qualified and determined staff. We’re ready for this fight. We welcome it. We’re lean and mean, and the strongest will survive.” His employees cheered him, took their pay and went home to their families.
I received mine, too, with a bonus for extra work as promised. Ninoh was informed that she had to wait for her wages; Better Stone’s debts could not be paid until the company had been sold.
We decided not to wait and took off. Ninoh said she didn’t want to talk about it.
17. Treasure Island
You just don’t find treasure every day. I never met anyone who ever found anything worth bragging about. Some people constantly find things on the streets, probably because they’re looking down all the time and see things that people who look up don’t notice. I’ve got a cousin who finds money and small objects all the time, and once he even found a gold ring. But I wouldn’t call that treasure. I stopped believing in treasure when I was about ten years old, around the time I stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause. But believe it or not, Ninoh found a treasure. A big one.
We were slowly drifting toward a large island. Our sail—my old shirt on a stick—was flapping away and we couldn’t catch much wind, but we were both tired of rowing. Suddenly several kids about our age arrived out of nowhere, each standing on a brightly colored board carried swiftly along by a huge sail about forty feet high. The sails looked like gigantic kites, and they worked like magic. The boy or girl on each board moved with amazing speed until they were parallel to our raft, about twenty yards out. Then tall boy leading the pack maneuvered straight for us at ramming speed. A split second before the inevitable crash he leaned back and leaped up, and his sail board shot over our heads as we dove into the water. The boy never even glanced our way as his laughing, shouting companions followed in rapid succession, repeating his stunt with varying degrees of success.
“I’ll get those jerks someday!” Ninoh swore. As we climbed out of water, wet and angry, the sails sped out of sight.
We approached a small lagoon where trees grew almost to the water’s edge, and while I was securing the raft Ninoh disappeared. I stripped off my clothes and laid them on the sand to dry.
In about ten minutes she returned, dragging an iron trunk. “I found it in the water,” she panted, “pretty deep, like somebody buried it. I think it’s a treasure chest.”
It took us a pretty long time to open the trunk, and what we found inside was, well, simply unbelievable. There were gold and silver coins, jewelry and loose gems, and a separate compartment filled with small transparent stones. When Ninoh saw them her eyes popped.
“Diamonds,” she gasped. “I’ve never seen such large ones.”
“How do you know they’re diamonds?” I asked, and the way she looked at me said she’d been born knowing. “Well, Lady Ninoh, what are you going to do with this fabulous treasure of yours?”
“First of all, it isn’t mine, it’s ours,” she said firmly. “Second, I’ve always dreamed about making people happy. I want to help those in need, feed the hungry, heal the sick. I hope you’ll join me in this honorable task.”
I agreed instantly, and we loaded the box on our raft and rowed along the shore in the direction the sail racers had taken. Before long we landed on a broad beach where a girl of about eleven or twelve was playing by herself, surrounded by different kinds of paper. She threw several white paper airplanes into the wind and observed how each one flew. Then she took several sheets of newspaper and let them fly. She ran after them, watching as they went up and down and eventually fell to the sand. She was so engaged in her experimentation that she didn’t even see us when we came ashore and stood watching her for some time.
When she finally noticed us, she greeted us—“Ah, the turtles!”—and continued with her play. “I saw how the Smarts played a nice game with you,” she said when one of her planes fell near my feet. “They call themselves Smarts, but they’re really dumb.” She spoke with the conviction of someone who knows what she’s talking about. “Granted, Eric isn’t dumb, but he’s not as bright as he thinks he is.”
Ninoh interrupted the flow of chatter. “Can you direct us to the poorest neighborhood on this island?”
“That’s easy,” the child replied, “I live there. Are you officials, or are you just curious about our ‘zoo’?” We quickly assured her we were just curious.
Her name was Cecilia, and she agreed to take us there for a small fee. “I need an incentive to go back there,” she said simply, “but you can find it yourselves if you want; just follow the smell.”
She was one of the smartest kids I ever met, bright and sharp as a razor. And she was right: the smell was awful and the neighborhood was destitute.
They called it “the Project.” It consisted of a dozen rundown buildings of four to eight stories around a central common area they called “the Plaza.” If that was a plaza, then I’m a camel.
Then again, maybe I am a camel.
Every building had cracked walls and broken windows; graffiti and garbage and filth were everywhere. “Someone at city hall paid a developer to build this low-income housing,” Cecilia explained. “He pocketed all the money he could during construction and then disappeared. I’m sure he shared the money with the people who gave him the job in the first place, because now he’s building Projects like this all over.”
The Project smelled obnoxious and looked dangerous. But people are people wherever you go; we saw two drunks sprawled on a wooden bench in the middle of the plaza. One was short and stocky, dressed in orange coveralls like a highway worker. The other looked like a grade-school teacher with his glasses, old suit and dirty shoes. They both smiled at us as we approached and exchanged greetings. The short one, Bip, seemed a little more sober than his pal, Bop.
“Would you be interested in changing your life?” Ninoh inquired. Both said they would be very interested. Encouraged, she continued, “What would you need to change your lives?”
“Money!” they chorused instantly.
“And what would you do if you suddenly received a lot of money?” she asked.
“I’d buy my wife a nice dress,” Bip replied, “and then I’d move to another neighborhood, get myself a vehicle and find a job. There are no jobs around here; no one wants to open even a liquor store in the Project.”
Bop’s response took a while. “I would . . . travel. I would . . . see places. And . . . write about them in beautiful magazines. That’s what I would do. And then, I would . . . become a fireman.”
Ninoh reached into her pocket and pulled out several gold coins. “Here’s about twenty thousand dollars apiece,” she said, “That’s enough to do everything you said. Go and do it.”
We left them and approached a building where in a first-floor window we saw a woman in her forties, simultaneously ironing and battling several small children. “All yours?” Ninoh asked with a smile. “How many?”
“Five.” The woman smiled wearily. “Feels like twenty sometimes,” she added as she separated two wrestling toddlers.
“What would you do,” Ninoh asked, “if you had lots of money, and I mean lots?
The woman beamed. “I’d start a college fund for my kids. I dream about giving them a good education. I want all my children to have a better life.”
“That’s a very worthy goal!” Ninoh said happily. “How much do you think you’d need?”
“How much?” She chuckled. “Well, I suppose twenty thousand for each kid would do.” Ninoh smiled and handed her one hundred thousand dollars.
We met a man who said that if he had six thousand, four hundred seventy-seven dollars and thirty-seven cents, he’d be as happy as an elephant. I didn’t know that elephants were happy creatures, but what do I know?
A family of four living in a shabby apartment below Cecilia’s calculated that in order to be absolutely and totally happy they need seventeen thousand, one hundred and twenty-four dollars.
Cecilia’s next-door neighbor, a 70-year-old veteran of two wars, said he needed five hundred dollars and not one cent more.
Each and every one got exactly what they asked for. Ninoh was very excited. She said that now she knew her life was worth something, and surely the Great One in the Skies would take that into consideration during the final accounting. But she said she’d do it even if there were no reward for her in the afterlife.
The apartment where Cecilia lived with her mother was surprisingly neat and clean. Her mother was at work as usual, the child explained; that was why she spent so much time alone. Cecilia’s room was filled with books, models, diagrams and graphs, more like a laboratory than a little girl’s bedroom. Amid the organized clutter, she made us a business proposition.
“I want to build a sail,” she said, “that’ll be better than anyone else’s, including the ones the Smarts have. But I need money to buy materials and supplies, and someone to help me build it, and someone to test it out. If it works, we can either sell the idea to sailboat manufacturers or keep making sails ourselves. Either way it could be a very profitable enterprise.”
Ninoh said she wasn’t interested in making investments, only in making people happy. “You’ll make me happy if you invest in my sail,” Cecilia said. That’s how we became shareholders in Cecilia’s Sails. While we slept in Cecilia’s apartment, she worked all night on perfecting her design and by morning left us to work on her project.
First thing we saw when we got downstairs were two drunks, Bip and Bop on the same bench in the middle of the plaza. They were very happy to see us. “Hey, there,” said Bip, “Nice to see you again. Can you give us some more money?”
“But what did you do with all the money we gave you yesterday?” asked Ninoh.
“Lost it. Lost everything,” Bip said cheerfully. “And why, you ask? ’Cause my luck ran out. I was sitting tight, waiting for hearts, and they kept dealing me spades. Can you believe it?’
“I believe you’ve had very bad luck,” Ninoh said, “but I thought you were going to buy your wife a nice dress, get a job, and get out of this slum.”
“Excuse me,” ventured Bop, the would-be globetrotter and firefighter, “but it’s not the end of the world, you know. If you’ll give us money this one last time, we swear we’ll do everything we promised. We’ll do everything we said we would, and this time we’ll do it right.”
“I’m not giving you another cent,” Ninoh said flatly.
“Why not?” Bip demanded. “Don’t we deserve a second chance? You never said it was a one- time deal. You have lots of money. Why won’t you share? That’s not very nice.”
“Not very fair, either,” Bop added. “I admit we made a mistake. Should we be punished for being human? For how long—the rest of our lives? Don’t you believe in second chances? Are you going to stand there and tell us that you’ve always done everything right the first time?”
“It’s unfair,” Bip announced angrily, “unfair and inhuman. Now I wouldn’t take your money the first time either.”
“I’ll think about it,” Ninoh snapped, and off we went to visit the mother of five.
We found her ironing by the same window, but now she was wearing a very expensive dress and using a brand-new cordless iron. There was an ugly bruise under her left eye and she looked like she’d been crying. The apartment was crowded with state-of-the-art appliances and stacks of unopened crates and boxes. All five of her kids were running around between the boxes and playing hide-and-seek behind the shiny new machines.
“Oh, I’m so glad to see you again,” she exclaimed. “Yesterday my husband and I went to the bank to open accounts for the kids’ college education, but we stopped to buy a new iron. The old one wasn’t working very well anyway. For the first time in my life I could afford a brand-new iron, and we decided that such a good iron deserves a new ironing board. Then we decided that the kids don’t have to go to the best university; after all, we’re not educated, but we managed somehow. So we bought a new TV, and a good air conditioner, and a whole new bedroom, like the ones on that show about the rich and famous. I’ve always wanted a bed that would make me feel like a queen. But silk sheets are very delicate, so we had to buy a new washer and dryer. So we could live like normal people, we told each other. We bought the best of everything, and it was wonderful. It was the best day of our marriage!
“The only thing is,” she continued, “on top of the money you gave us, we spent all of our savings. My husband took off on his new motorcycle; said he wants to be free now. Can you give me enough to feed the kids? It’s your fault he left us, so now you should take care of us.”
She began to cry and we slowly backed away. “I’m afraid to go see the others,” Ninoh said quietly.
The man who wanted six thousand, four hundred seventy-seven dollars and thirty-seven cents wasn’t happy at all. In fact, he didn’t even open his door when we knocked. The family of four had stopped speaking to each other. The only happy recipient of our money was the old veteran, who spent his five hundred dollars on a huge flag, new combat uniform, an M16 and ammo, and a bronze monument inscribed “In Honor of Our Fallen Heroes.” When we knocked on his door and entered, we found him guarding his monument with the flag displayed behind him. He couldn’t speak on guard duty, of course, but his eyes sparkled and danced and he couldn’t keep himself from smiling.
Those weren’t results to be proud of, and angry Ninoh turned around and left. I decided not to follow her and instead find out what Cecilia was up to. I found her in a small fabric store where she was bargaining, and bargaining hard. That little girl was the toughest haggler I ever saw. She was trying to reduce the price of fabric for her sail by two cents a yard. Three salespeople were explaining that she was already getting the best price and that further discount would be impossible. All three looked exhausted, and one went to summon the owner.
As I drew near Cecilia was saying, “If my sail is any good I’ll sell hundreds of them, and I swear I’ll come back here! Give me a good price and I promise to come to you for all the material I’ll need.”
I took her aside and told her that two cents more or less didn’t matter, that we’d give her more money if she needed it. She looked at me as if I were from another planet. “It isn’t important for the prototype, but it’ll be crucial if we start producing quantities. You see, I want to make the best sail in the world at the best possible price. I want to sell lots and lots of sails, and I want people to be able to afford them.”
She got her two-cent discount from the owner himself. He thanked her graciously for her purchase, saying he looked forward to cooperating with such a tough young lady. He added that she had already won his heart and, if only she were five years older and he forty years younger, he would offer his hand as well.
“I might consider putting your company’s name on my sail,” Cecilia told him. “Think about it. It might be worth a couple more cents off.” We walked away, and when I looked back the smiling owner gave me a thumb’s-up.
I helped Cecilia carry the fabric to her apartment. On the way she told me she’d already hired several people from her housing project to help her, at minimum wages, and expected them to work with all their might. “Lean and mean,” she said, “that’s how you win.”
“But remember what they did with the money Ninoh gave them,” I cautioned her. “They won’t work for peanuts.”
“And why not?” she replied. “It’ll be their own hard-earned money, not some easy come, easy go handout.”
When we arrived at the Project, we saw that the abandoned eight-story building off the Plaza had become a hive of activity. A small army of workers was sweeping and scrubbing and painting outside, and building something inside. Excited neighborhood kids darted all over the place; curious adults strolled by and craned their necks. In one of the windows I spotted Ninoh, obviously the queen bee. She signaled me to join her and disappeared. I left the fabric in Cecilia’s apartment and rushed back to find out what was going on.
“I blew it yesterday,” Ninoh admitted. “Those people had no idea what to do with so much money. They went crazy, and it’s my fault, not theirs.”
“Well, what now?”
“Now we do it differently, very differently.” She was very pleased with herself. “I invited the poorest people to the Plaza, to hear what I’m going to offer them. We’d better head down there.”
Soon the Plaza was teeming with curious islanders. Ninoh stood on Bip and Bop’s bench, looked around happily, and addressed the crowd. “I bought this building, and we’re preparing it for new tenants. We’ll move in everyone who is sick or poor or jobless and can’t feed themselves or their families. Do you want to live in nice apartments with good furniture? Do you want someone to provide everything you need, so you can be free to do what you’ve always wanted—to learn new things, create, achieve? To do everything you’ve always dreamed about but couldn’t because you had to fight the misfortunes that life dealt you? Do you want me to take care of you?”
The crowd went berserk—laughing, crying, shouting, hugging. Several trucks arrived and the drivers began unloading furniture and appliances and moving them into the building. Now the crowd was dancing and singing. They were as happy as elephants.
Cecilia was busy building her sail. Three women whom she hired to help her were busy as well. The blueprint was spread on the table of larger room in Cecilia’s apartment and they were cutting and sewing the fabric we brought from the store. “This is my mom,” Cecilia introduced one of
the women, and then exclaimed, “Mom, what are you doing? I told you, double stitches. I won’t accept any hack work.”
Then Cecilia led me into the room she called her headquarters. “I have a problem,” she told me.
“There’s a guy I want to hire to race for us, but he’s very expensive. I’m afraid I’ll have to spend half my money on him, and that could force me to compromise on the quality of the materials.”
“Hire someone else,” I suggested, “someone less expensive.” And for the second time that day I received Cecilia’s “look.”
“I want the best,” she insisted, “only the best.”
“A few hours ago you were haggling over two cents, and now you want to spend half your money on a racer,” I protested. “Where’s the logic in that?”
“Look at it this way,” she said patiently. “If I have a very good racer, I have a better chance of winning. People will notice the new sail and be impressed, if we win, everybody will want one. Got it?”
“No,” I said. “They’ll say that a famous sail racer won again. They won’t notice the sail, they’ll notice him. But if a new person with no experience wins—or better yet, someone known to be a bad sailor—then your sail wins, too. Got it?”
“Hmmm. You’re right.” After a pause she added, “You’re hired.”
“What?! Wait a second; I have no idea how to operate this thing. Find someone who . . .”
“You and only you,” Cecilia said firmly. “First, you don’t know the first thing about sails, which means you haven’t developed any bad habits. Second, you’re strong and athletic, and that’s important. And third, you have motivation. Imagine the look on Eric’s face when you, of all people, defeat him. The greatest sail racing champion in the Empire, humiliated in front of all the Smarts. I’ll bet you’d enjoy that.”
I would, I thought, so why not give it a try? Ninoh’s busy spreading money around, and I have nothing better to do . . . “I’ll do it,” I said aloud, and then added, “For free.”
“Agreed,” Cecilia said quickly, and we shook hands. So now I’m a sail racer, I though. I’ll have plenty of stories to tell when I get back home . . . and for the second time since I came to the Thousand Islands Empire, I missed my family.
“The Smarts know that you have no idea how to operate the sail,” Cecilia was saying. “They’ll laugh themselves silly and make a big show of it, and I’m sure Eric couldn’t resist the challenge. No one will expect you to win. And then—boom!—you show them your behind. This is great!” She giggled excitedly.
“But I may not win, I mean, I probably won’t,” I protested. “I’m not a racer, Cecilia. I’ve never ever operated a flying sail.” I repeated again, “I may not win this race.”
“But you will,” Cecilia replied calmly. “You have no other choice.”
I spent the rest of the day, the evening and part of the night with Cecilia on the beach. She taught me the basics of aeronautics, then the basics of sail manipulation, and then the basics of her design. I thought Hugh knew everything about kites, sails and wind direction! He didn’t know zilch about any of the subjects that Cecilia said “every first-grader should know.”
She was the most demanding instructor I ever had. I wanted to quit a hundred times, and endured training hell because I couldn’t quit on a twelve-year-old girl and get her “look” again. And this was only the first day, which she called “theory.” Then we started my “practice” sessions—and suddenly theory was “small potatoes,” as she said.
“You see,” she told me repeatedly, “the biggest problem for an ordinary fixed sail is the turn, especially the u-turn. My sail, on the other hand, is built from several moving parts and one moment you use one part that drives you forward, but if you momentarily turn it off and simultaneously turn on another part that faces another direction, the sail will take you in the new direction. Do you understand now how it works?”
It’s a long way from understanding to doing, which I learned very quickly. But after each session Cecilia adjusted and modified the sail, each time making it easier and more fun to operate.
We visited the peninsula where a triangular racecourse had been marked by buoys. Racers would sail from the starting point to the first marker, make a sharp turn and head for the second buoy, make another sharp turn around it, and finish the race where they started. Whoever turned fastest and lost the least time and distance had the best chance of winning. No pressure! My skills improved and my confidence increased with each practice session, but I still couldn’t make the u-turn—an integral part of Cecilia’s strategy and a critical feature of her invention.
Little Cecilia was quite a taskmaster. I only saw Ninoh on my breaks; she was also very busy and seemed very happy. She called her building Communa and proudly described the first-floor cafeteria that was free to all residents, the gymnasium in the basement, and especially the fact that the tenants had all participated in electing a board of directors: president, treasurer and secretary. She explained that the tenants would clean the building, take care of the elderly residents, and organize child care themselves. They’d be so grateful for their rent-free furnished apartments, and free utilities and food and recreation and entertainment, that they’d gladly give their time and attention to those worse off than themselves. “The people in my building are helping each other,” Ninoh told me proudly, “and that’s the best thing ever happened to them— and to me.”
She organized an office in the lobby so every tenant could have free access to her. Something always needed to be resolved, and Ninoh was good at that. For the first time since Fish Island I felt that Ninoh might have found her niche. Her life needed purpose, and she was desperately needed here. She was very different now from the cocky girl who had pretended to be a boy.
One day Cecilia decided on a trial run at the racecourse, and Ninoh came along to see how I was doing. I was very happy to show off—until the Smarts showed up, with Eric as usual at the head of the pack. I was making the first turn on the racecourse and wasn’t very successful. The Smarts easily caught up with me, and passed me one by one as I attempted the second turn. I don’t know who got more laughs—me or the sail—but they came up with plenty of names and insults. Ninoh was hopping around like mad and cursing. Cecilia stood there in calm silence, observing intently. “Good!” she said when the Smarts had left. “Now they know you’re not a threat and they’ll spread the word. When you finish first, it’ll be like a bomb going off. ‘If he’s so bad,’ people will say, ‘how did he win?’ And everybody will want my sail! Now we need to practice really hard, Nik. We’ll do several runs today, and again this evening, until you can see the course with your eyes closed. And then we’ll practice some more.”
When we got back to the Project it was well past midnight. “How’s my Communa doing?” Ninoh wondered. “You know, this was the first time I’ve been gone so long without telling anyone where I went.”
As we drew near we saw two men dragging something big and heavy out of a first-floor window; one stood at the window and the other on the pavement. Shocked, we recognized the TV Ninoh had purchased for the tenants’ game room. Then we recognized Bip and Bop. When they saw us they dropped the TV and tried to escape. Ninoh easily caught Bip; Bop came back but kept a safe distance.
“Why?” Ninoh demanded furiously. “Why are you stealing from everyone in the building, including yourselves? I bought that TV for you, you morons!”
“Well,” Bip drawled, “since it kinda doesn’t belongs to anyone, we figured we could take it and trade it for some booze. But we were gonna replace it the minute we made some dough, right, Bop?” Bop acknowledged his pal’s statement from the shadows.
“Let’s go,” Ninoh snarled, yanking Bip to his feet. “I need to tell our board of directors what happened so they can decide what to do with you.”
Cecilia left us to return to her work, and Bip, Bop, Ninoh and I entered the building. The lobby was dimly lit; we looked up and saw that most of the light bulbs were missing, and nearly tripped over the garbage that seemed to be everywhere. The walls were covered with graffiti, including words that were not in any dictionary. The cafeteria was a disaster and reeked of vomit and spoiled food. In the gym a group of noisy teenagers was playing cards amid what remained of the vandalized equipment. Communa now looked exactly like the rest of the Project. The board of directors and the money Ninoh gave them were nowhere to be found.
We let Bip and Bop go and they ran off, probably to see if there were any TVs left. “I hate people,” Ninoh spat, and I knew exactly how she felt. Then Cecilia came to mind; I couldn’t hate her.
“We’ll leave after the race,” I decided. “We can’t just abandon Cecilia, Ni.” She nodded and heaved a sigh. “Besides,” I continued, “we still have most of the treasure, and we’ll have to decide what to do with it.”
“Check,” Ninoh agreed. “I can live with that. Until the end of the race then—but not a minute more.”
We rented a hotel suite in the heart of the island’s main city. Ninoh didn’t want to talk about Communa or the Project, and Cecilia didn’t volunteer any information when we met for our training sessions. She was so absorbed in the creation of her sail that she probably hadn’t noticed anything else.
We’d meet at an isolated beach not far from our hotel and I’d work on my sailing skills. Cecilia soon discovered that Ninoh was no less demanding a trainer than she was. They had a discussion and after that Cecilia only attended the morning sessions and the “dry runs” on the racecourse. I was improving steadily, but my turns were still bad.
At last the day of the race arrived. Hundreds of people lined the shore, cheering their favorite racers amid the profusion of pennants, music, boats, vendors offering ice cream and hot dogs, and children running and shrieking happily. It was a beautiful day, with light winds and bright sunshine. More than thirty racers were lining up at the start, boards on the sand, sails in their hands. It was clear that the Smarts and especially Eric were the crowd’s favorites.
Cecilia and her staff came ashore and brought me the sail and the board. From the looks we got I knew the rumor had spread: a complete stranger who knew nothing about sailing and a pre-teen girl from the Project were not only racing but also introducing a new sail of their own design. We were the official laughingstock of the island.
“Unfurl the sails!” the judge shouted. “Let ’em fly!”
Thirty sales hit the air. Some opened and caught the wind immediately, some fell back. As my sail slowly rose and opened, “Looking for Hugh” appeared in huge letters. I was very touched by Cecilia and Ninoh’s surprise gift, but had no time for emotion.
“On your mark . . . get set . . . GO!” yelled the judge, and thirty boards hit the water. Eric was the first to move out, his sail full of wind.
I wasn’t last, because two competitors didn’t move at all; I was in the last three. My sail was slow to catch air, slow off the line, and slow to speed up. Or maybe it was me; compared to real pros, I didn’t know what I was doing. But in about a minute my sail billowed and I quickly passed the guy ahead of me. Then two more, then another and another. By some miracle I reached the first turn behind only six or seven racers. And I missed it.
It was probably the longest turn in the history of sail racing. I fell into last place with no chance of winning. It was so humiliating that I wanted to quit, but one thought about Cecilia and I was back on track. And again her sail was working miracles. I overtook one contestant, another, a third and fourth. I suddenly understood how to make the board fly in the air and change direction while airborne. I gained another yard on the lead group. Then another yard . . . they were making the second turn, and I noticed that their sails were ridiculously outdated . . . and there was nothing else in the world except me and velocity. I flew around the buoy, ahead of everyone except Eric. He was a formidable opponent, but he had been outmaneuvered and outsmarted by a little girl. He didn’t know it yet, but he already lost.
Later Ninoh told me that our last run resembled a very eager schoolboy trying to best his master. The amazing part was that it wasn’t me but Eric who was the schoolboy, and his best wasn’t good enough. I came in first and the crowd went silent—and an instant later they were on their feet, cheering and shouting and waving madly. People were running toward me as I came ashore and pointed to Cecilia. Both of us were carried by cheering fans to the judge, who handed me the trophy. Without a moment of hesitation I handed it to Cecilia.
Ninoh and I left the crowds on the beach and went back to hotel. She wanted to leave the island immediately, but I was famous now and wanted to enjoy my celebrity. I spent the next couple of days signing autographs and showing off. Ninoh told me that fame has positive aspects, but “girls looking at you with stupid round eyes” is a negative one. I decided not to argue, although personally I think that any time girls look at you, it can’t be negative.
Two days later I had a visitor. A gentleman in his forties came to our hotel and said he wanted to talk to me. “I saw on your sail that you’re looking for Hugh,” he said. “Are you talking about a little guy with bright eyes who flew here on a kite?”
“Yes,” I gasped, not believing my ears. “Where did you see him?”
“I had gone to Shark Island on business,” he explained, “and was boarding my boat to leave when out of nowhere this boy fell into the water right in front of my boat. He wasn’t a good swimmer, so I helped him out and gave him dry clothes. He said he’d been very sick back home, but after swimming in the waters and breathing the air of the Thousand Islands Empire, he was completely cured. He mentioned another boy who would follow him; Nik, I think he said. I gave him a loaf of bread and we parted.”
“Shark Island, right? You did say Shark Island?” I insisted, and he nodded. I grabbed his hand and shook it, thanking him, until he gently disengaged himself and hurried off. Now I knew where to look for Hugh, where I’d find my best friend. “We’re leaving right now,” I told Ninoh, “unless you want to stay here, of course.”
“Stay and not meet Hugh?” Ninoh said, and laughed. “I’m with you one hundred per cent.” We were ready to go in an instant and went to say goodbye to Cecilia, whom we hadn’t seen since the race.
As we neared the Project we couldn’t believe our eyes. The street leading to the plaza was undergoing major renovations. One building was already occupied by a bank, another by a department store. Other buildings were being cleaned scraped and painted. The Plaza itself had changed as well; in the center stood Cecilia’s sail, cast in bronze and mounted on a huge metal pole. It couldn’t have weighed less than five tons. The building once occupied by Communa had been converted into the “Cecilia’s Sails, Incorporated” headquarters and Cecilia herself was standing in front of it watching the huge letters of her company’s name being mounted on the roof. She was happy to see us. “I want you to know that your investment grew,” she said cheerfully, “I think by about ten thousand per cent.” Then we saw something that left us speechless: Bip and Bop were actually working as painters on one side of the building. They waved at us happily. “How did you ever get those two to work?” I asked in disbelief. “How much you are you paying them?”
“I pay everyone minimum wage,” Cecilia replied, “and very large bonuses to people who work really well. What is and what is not acceptable is clearly explained to them, and if they don’t work well, they get fired. They know that; I’ve fired several people already. My employees are given two choices: work really well or get fired. Some say it’s not fair, but I’m in the business of building the best and most affordable sail in the world, not in the business of charity.”
“After you left,” she continued happily, “representatives of two major boat manufacturers approached me with similar offers to buy my sail. I told them both no, and that their competitors are interested in my sail as well. Now all the major companies are here, opening new offices. We have the best sail and we’re selling it to anyone who wants to buy. If you don’t buy from us, you won’t be competitive with the market. So now they have two choices: buy from us or be out of business very soon. On every boat, board, ski, whatever they put my sail on, they have to print ‘Powered by Cecilia’s Sail.’ It was their choice and all of them chose to work with me. I needed a lot of help and hired local people. I know them, they know me. They know that if they work well, I’ll always be there for them.
“Then two banks approached us offering loans, and I told them I’ll use whichever bank opens an office here first. Both are on the street already. Things are moving along fast. Thanks to you, this area will no longer be the worst in town. It was a very fortunate that I met you. I’m quite sure the Project will soon become very fashionable place to be. I’m opening a retail outlet to sell boats and boards with my sail. There’s a jewelry store that’ll be opening near us, and a couple of designers are raving about the lofts here. I’m planning to make a flying kite, like you told me your friend Hugh designed. I loved your story. Would you like to stay and help me? After all, you’re the major shareholders in this corporation. You’re the only investors who believed in me.”
It was her world and her project. We hugged each other, promised to come back, and went to our raft. On the raft we saw a package with a note attached to it: To my true friends, from Cecilia.
We opened the package and found the sail I’d used to win the race, and immediately mounted it on our raft. As Ninoh lashed down the iron trunk and the remaining treasure, I opened the sail and let it fly. Next stop: Shark Island.
Hugh made it. He’s here! I couldn’t think about anything except seeing him again.
18. Pirate Island
When you fly a huge colorful sail forty feet tall, and especially if you carry a treasure in an old iron trunk, you should be aware of pirates. It’s a simple rule every traveler ought to know, but we acted like we were sailing in a backyard pool. We didn’t take any precautions and we got caught. By pirates. The most dangerous and devilish pirates in the whole Empire.
My advice is don’t believe any stories about pirates, if they don’t mention the simple truth that pirates stink. They don’t bathe, and they have bad teeth. They have bad attitudes as well. At least the ones that started shooting at us out of nowhere and by lucky (or unlucky, depending on whose side you take) chance hit our sail hard. Those pirates where really nasty and rude. In a split second we were tied up like cocoons and lifted onto their ship, watching helplessly as our treasure disappeared into the captain’s cabin and our faithful little raft was smashed to pieces. If we’d suspected that the ship which approached us so innocently was a pirate ship, we would’ve outrun them easily with Cecilia’s glorious sail. Only when they opened fire did we realize we were trapped.
We lay on the deck of their stinky ship as the pirates went about their business, stepping over us, not paying the slightest attention to how or what we were doing. “We have to escape,” Ninoh whispered. “I’ll try to chew through your ropes while you keep watch. I won’t even start about what pirates do to people they capture. ”
I felt her roll closer and begin gnawing on the ropes that tied my hands behind my back. It took Ninoh hours of hard work, with me signaling every approach and her pretending to sleep. But finally I could move my left hand. It took another hour of combined effort to free my right hand and get some life back into it. By then it was dark and no one saw me untying my legs and freeing myself from the ropes. But when I started on Ninoh’s knots we heard voices. Several people were coming from the captain’s cabin in our direction.
“Hide!” Ninoh whispered. “Overboard, if you have to. They’ll think you freed yourself and took off, and they know there’s no way to find you in the water.”
I thought that this advice was very timely and smart, and slipped away in the opposite direction of the approaching us pirates. I hid in the stern, all but invisible, waiting for the right moment to free Ninoh.
When the pirates saw I was gone, they became extremely agitated. “Where’s your friend?” they bellowed at Ninoh. “Tell us or you’ll be sorry.”
“That son of a stinking shark ran away,” Ninoh hissed with all the hate she could muster. “He didn’t even bother to help me. He just freed himself and dove over the side. I’ll kill him with my bare hands, the miserable snake.”
The pirates roared with glee until the one who seemed to be in charge shouted for silence. “Light the lanterns and search for the boy. He might be hiding aboard somewhere. Take this smart mouth to my cabin and keep her there.” He leered at Ninoh. “She’s going to be my personal gift to the Admiral. He likes to play with little wildcats.”
His crew hurried to obey his orders. Ninoh was dragged off to the captain’s cabin; two guards remained at the door and one at the window as their cohorts collected lanterns and began combing the ship.
I looked around for another place to hide. In desperation I grabbed a rope tied to the railing, slipped over and slid down to the water line. I clung to the ship’s hull while the pirates searched for another hour; a couple of times I saw heads craning over the side. But soon they were laughing about the boy who ran away. “He’s dead,” they assured each other. “There’s no way he could reach land, especially at night. The sharks are already feasting on him.”
I was miserably wet and cold, and when the lanterns disappeared I began inching toward the deck. But very soon pirates began running around again, adjusting the sails and checking the anchor. In the distance I saw lights and then an island with several pirate ships in a lagoon.
Before our ship cast its anchor I was swimming for the shore. I landed about a quarter mile from the main pier and in the dark I stumbled over somebody’s clothes drying on a rope.
When the captain stepped onto the pier followed by some of his crew who carried our trunk and guarded Ninoh, I was among the crowd cheering their return and their plundered treasures. A happy procession soon led to the largest house in sight, but when I tried to enter two husky guards pushed me back to the street. I noticed metal bars on the windows and two other guards patrolling the building. It looked more like military installation than a house where people live.
I watched the house for about an hour, hiding behind some empty barrels and a pile of garbage on a side street. I saw youngsters running in and out, most of them carrying bottles of wine or trays of food. I found two empty bottles and filled them from a puddle. With the same determination I saw on the delivery boys’ faces, I ran toward the steps of the house. No one paid even the slightest attention to me and then I was inside. The doors to the main dining hall were wide open and I saw about twenty pirates eating, drinking and quarrelling with each other as loud as humanly possible. I moved directly to the most lavish table and went to stand behind the pirate in the seat of honor, who appeared to be their admiral. I spotted the captain who captured Ninoh and me but none of his crew, so I figured this room was for high-ranking pirates only. I put my two bottles with many others in front of the admiral, some empty, some full. There was enough wine, rum, gin and brandy to get a small army drunk.
One of the pirates grabbed my arm. “Get these dirty plates out of here, boy.”
Here’s my chance, I thought when I could breathe again, and began to clear the table and refill the pirates’ glasses.
I kept my head down and they kept right on drinking and boasting about prizes they’d stolen, how many people they’d killed during their raids and how many they’d sold into slavery. Then the admiral stood up and gradually the clamor died.
“My friends,” he announced, “One of our captains has returned with rich treasure. He wants to show you what he and his brave crew captured. Go ahead, Iko,” and he sat back down.
Captain Iko stood up, strode to the door and gestured grandly. In a moment two of his men came in carrying our treasure chest. They placed it carefully in the middle of the room and moved away as Iko moved to stand over the trunk. “No pirate has seen such a battle in a long, long time,” he said dramatically. “We fought off two, no, three government ships to win this treasure, and we drowned every man aboard ’em.” Everyone cheered except the admiral. “Officers and crew alike, every one of them is now shark food. And we lost . . . not one brother. There are no fighters in the Empire like us pirates!” More happy cheers and toasts.
Then Iko opened our trunk, and the cheers tripled. He signaled for silence and continued. “One third is ours. One third goes to the Admiral, and one third to you, my brothers. Pirates’ honor!” Now their cheers shook the roof.
Again Iko gestured and his men removed the trunk. “Now,” he said, “I give our beloved Admiral another gift . . . ” he looked back and there was Ninoh, her hands tied behind her back, her nose bleeding, but her head up. Two pirates were dragging her with long ropes and keeping a safe distance from their captive. “Here is my personal present to Admiral,” Iko said and smiled. I looked at the Admiral, who also smiled. I didn’t like his smile.
I began moving closer to Ninoh, but she noticed me and frowned slightly. Any attempt to rescue her now would be suicide, her eyes told me. I moved back, ready to act if needed.
“She’s a real wildcat,” Iko was saying. “She injured two of my best men.” I was very glad to hear that.
“Untie her,” said the Admiral, obviously enjoying himself.
Two pirates obeyed immediately and Ninoh stood in the middle of the room, absolutely calm, massaging her wrists and eying the pirates with cold interest. The noise in the room died away. Iko was very happy with himself. “I swear no one touched her, Admiral. We saved her just for you. I personally made sure of that. But after you’re finished with her, of course, I might want to play with her a little . . .”
That’s when he made a mistake. He came close to Ninoh. One lightning move and he hit the floor, gasping for air. In a split second every pirate had grasped his sword as Ninoh stood in the same indifferent position as before, now looking calmly at the Admiral.
The admiral laughed and sat back in his silken chair. At his signal the pirates reluctantly disarmed as Iko lay there moaning. Between moans he said, “I’ll kill you.”
“Only if my hands are tied behind my back and I’m blindfolded. Otherwise, you’ll run like a cowardly dog,” Ninoh stated clearly without even a glance in his direction.
Iko suddenly jumped to his feet and ran at her. There was a single determined thought written on his face: murder. But Ninoh hadn’t wasted her time learning Aikido from me. When Iko’s fist was just inches from her face, she moved aside and, as soon as the law of inertia had carried him past her, she put out a foot to trip him and then gently and effortlessly pushed him in the direction he was already falling. Iko hit the floor with a gruesome sound. It was pure slapstick but no one laughed.
Iko’s sword was now in Ninoh’s hand. “If anyone wants to visit me in my cell upstairs on the southwest corner, he’s welcome to the same treatment as this clown.” The pirates were on their feet again, ready for battle. Iko’s sword clattered to the floor and immediately several lassos hissed and settled around Ninoh’s shoulders. Within seconds she had been completely immobilized.
“Return her to her cell,” the admiral barked. “We’ll deal with her later.” The pirates hoisted her onto their shoulders and carried her off and I started to follow. Ninoh twisted her head around to look back at me, and there was real fear in her eyes. I silently swore I’d rescue her or we’d die together.
At least she gave me her location, I reminded myself as I exited through the kitchen. I spent the rest of the evening working on how to rescue her from this island of pirates.
I couldn’t even figure out how to get inside the admiral’s house again. The main doors were locked now and people had to talk to the guards through a small window if they wanted to enter.
I knew something terrible could be happening to my friend and I couldn’t help her. That was devastating.
When the moon came out I was ready to fight the whole world. I decided to climb the wall and kill as many pirates as I could, maybe even the admiral. Then I realized that even if I could, another pirate would just take his place and Ninoh and I would be hacked to pieces. I knew I couldn’t change anything and a little voice inside told me to leave this island and never come back.
I returned to the shore and stood staring at the ocean. I noticed a small boat beached nearby that I could easily navigate out of this nightmare. That’s what any sane person would do, I told myself.
Why should I commit suicide if it won’t help Ninoh? In fact, said the voice in my head, if you start a fight, it’ll just make her situation worse. She’ll find her way out of this, but if you come with nothing but your stupid bravado, they’ll kill you both.
I was at the boat, taking out the paddles. The ocean, freedom, everything was so close. No one saw me; no one would care or know.
“Yeah,” I said out loud, “but I’d know.” How could I look Hugh in the face when I found him? Could I tell him that I abandoned a friend to certain torture and death in a pirate prison? Or would I lie like a coward? Oh, Hugh, where are you when I need you most?
I turned my back on the waves. I was standing on the shore again, preparing for the fight of my life. It was stupid and unreasonable and yet it was the only thing to do. The full moon reminded me of my flight to the Thousand Islands Empire. How many things had happened to me since then!
I looked up and sighed—and saw someone flying with a kite. Then another, and another. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was the swift and deadly Imperial Guard, all twelve of them. The captain landed right in front of me and smiled. “The Emperor sends his greetings,” he said briskly. “Here’s your kite. We need to rescue your crazy girlfriend from those pirates. Let’s go; she’s in danger, and we have no time to lose.”
In a split second I had joined the Guard in the air. We moved effortlessly toward the admiral’s house, and one after another landed on the roof. The twelve took their positions behind me. “It’s your fight,” the captain said. “You lead, we follow.”
I crept over to the southwest corner, hung over the edge of the roof, and looked into the room below. I saw the admiral laughing with one of his men as Iko pulled a red-hot branding iron out of the fire. Then I saw Ninoh hanging by her wrists and realized he was going to brand her like a wild steer.
Ninoh’s face was white, her teeth clenched. Her clothes were shredded and she was gashed and bruised all over. Suddenly the admiral’s whip lashed out at her. Just in time, I thought grimly, and swung feet-first into the room. The effect was perfect. All three pirates froze, giving me time to cut Ninoh’s bonds. She fell to the floor as all three pirates attacked. I’m not that good with a sword; normally I wouldn’t last twenty seconds, but I didn’t need twenty seconds. The Imperial Guard filled up the room and the pirates’ weapons fell at their feet.
Footsteps pounded up the stairs and fists pounded on the door. The Guards and I jumped out the window and our kites carried us into the night. Two Guards brought up the rear with Ninoh—but only after she’d grabbed the whip and showed the admiral what a severely beaten and weakened girl could do with that gentle weapon.
We were free again, and on our way to Shark Island! But Ninoh was in real pain, so before long we stopped to bind her worst injuries and invent a more comfortable way for her to travel. I’ll see the Emperor soon, I thought, and he’ll help me find Hugh. The end of my journey was in sight at last. But what will I do after I find him? I was so absorbed in my search that I never even thought about that. I’ll go home, I decided; I miss Mom and Dad, and they must be worried sick by now. That’s it; I’ll find Hugh and we’ll go home—together!
19. “Shark Island: Identification of “IT”
Dawn was breaking as we all landed safely in the huge square courtyard of a huge square building. “Welcome to the Emperor’s palace,” said Hauque, the captain. The name suited him well. He was a very energetic and cheerful kid, and I liked him.
The Emperor’s courtyard didn’t look like I expected: no ornate decoration, no fine uniforms, no flags or banners, no soldiers in every corner. All kinds of people were walking or running in different directions. There was a basketball court, the walls had beautiful murals, and there were big shady trees and green areas all around. I saw many teenagers, but not even they seemed to notice our landing. Then I realized such things must be quite common for the Emperor’s household.
I turned to Hauque, almost giddy with excitement. “When can I see the Emperor?” “Right now,” he answered with a grin. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to him.”
He dismissed the Guard and began walking toward a group of people discussing something in the middle of the yard. I followed, thinking of all the questions I’d ask the Emperor. First, of course, does he know where Hugh is? Second, how did he know where and when to send his Guards to find us? What else does he know about us? And why did he decide to help us? But first and foremost: Hugh!
We reached the group and Hauque announced, “Sir, we have returned. Mission accomplished.”
The Emperor was one of these people, but which one? No one looked or behaved special, or seemed to be honored above the rest. I remembered the King who not only forbade his subjects to look directly at him, but also ordered the execution of one whose mirror temporarily blinded him.
The whole group turned to look at me, but I saw only one person. Hugh. Hugh was looking at me and smiling. And it was to Hugh that Hauque was saying, “Here he is as you commanded, sir: alive and in one piece. The young lady he travels with was in trouble, so we decided to bring her along. We couldn’t leave her at the mercy of the pirates. I hope we didn’t overstep, sir.”
“You did very well, as usual, Hauque,” said my friend Hugh, the Emperor. “Now go and rest.” Hauque saluted and retreated, and the group excused themselves as well.
I looked Hugh up and down. “How shall I address you? Sir? Your Excellency?”
“Call me whatever you want,” Hugh smiled. “Last time I saw you in the hospital you looked bad. Are you OK now?”
“I’m good,” I said, “but it wasn’t me in that hospital bed, it was you. You were really sick. Then you disappeared. And I’ve been looking for you ever since. I flew here on a kite, and got caught in a storm.”
“Flying on a kite is old news,” Hugh said loftily. “Obsolete. Wait ’til you see the disappearing mirrors I’m working on now. Wanna try going to another dimension? I need a volunteer.”
Ninoh’s voice broke in. “He’s not going anywhere, especially not to another dimension. There are things that have to be done in this dimension, and immediately.” We turned to see her standing two yards off.
Hugh looked at her in his arrogant way, his head cocked to the left. I could tell that he liked her, but a stranger might have assumed he was displeased about something.
“You have no right to order him around anyway,” Ninoh said, also cocky and arrogant.
My two best friends, I thought. So different but so alike.
“And what exactly do you think must be done in this dimension, and immediately?” Hugh asked.
“There’s an awful lot of injustice in your Empire,” Ninoh said.
“I know,” Hugh replied.
“You must prohibit slavery.”
“Then you must punish those islands that don’t obey the law.”
“You mean, invade the islands that behave badly?”
“Yes. Lawbreakers must be punished.”
“Hmm, and for that I’ll need a huge army, right? Where will I get so many soldiers, and how I will pay them?”
“But an emperor needs an army!”
“And which islands should I invade? The ones that I don’t like, or the ones that you don’t like?”
This conversation wasn’t progressing very well. Ninoh was getting more and more agitated, while Hugh was enjoying himself hugely.
“People who do bad things must be punished,” Ninoh insisted.
“I know,” Hugh agreed, “but I don’t have the money to build and outfit and supply an army. I’ll have to conquer a couple of weaker islands, make people pay contributions—against their will, of course—then assemble a bigger army to invade other islands and punish them for enslaving people. Wow! And then, I should leave soldiers on every island to make sure the islanders don’t do bad things any more, right? And to pay those soldiers on every island, I’ll have to impose additional taxes. Now, soldiers and generals are only human, and they might start doing bad things, right? Do I have to invade those islands again? Or maybe create an army of spies to keep me informed? Or just report what people say about me on every island in the Empire? And when they say I’m no good, should I have them arrested? ”
Ninoh glared at him. “Well, you could talk to your people. You’re their Emperor. They’ll listen to you.”
“I’m not so sure talking helps all that much,” Hugh said calmly. “I was thinking about constructing two powerful broadcast stations on opposite sides of the Empire and sending subliminal messages to make them less greedy and aggressive,” now he was talking to me, “but then I realized that would affect their free will, their desire to learn about the world, to create things, to change things. If people weren’t aggressive, and ambitious, and greedy, new drugs would never be invented, new businesses would never be organized; people would never have landed on the Moon. Aggression is not necessarily bad. Even if we could ‘cure’ it, we might do more harm than good. ”
“Well,” Ninoh continued doggedly, “thousands of your subjects have no food, no medicine, no clothing and no shelter. If you’re the Emperor, you have to take care of them. If you won’t—or can’t—punish the tyrants, then at least help the poor and sick and weak.”
“You tried that on Treasure Island,” Hugh replied, “and our records show that your mother used to come to the previous Emperor to get supplies for your island.” Ninoh and I traded surprised looks. “But I’ve thought about that as well. I’m actually doing it; many islands send their representatives here to get free supplies of food and—more important—the knowledge of how to obtain more food. You tried to do that too, on Fish island, if memory serves. I don’t believe this program of providing free food is very successful, but we continue it—even though we know exactly how much of it is stolen and sold for profit instead of handed out as intended. We considered producing enough artificial food to supply everyone, but on top of the practical difficulties of distribution, I’m now convinced that whatever people get for free only spoils them. If disaster strikes, we’re here to help. But when people can do something themselves, you’re not helping when you give it to them for nothing. They survive as a species but die as human beings. If you give someone a laxative for a long time and then suddenly stop, their guts will not function properly. Maybe that’s not the best example, but when you try to cure one problem you often end up creating another.”
“So imprison the rich and powerful on every island and end the corruption,” Ninoh snapped impatiently.
“You want me to punish them because they have money? Tell me, how much money is punishable and how much isn’t? But say we did it; the strongest of the poor and weak will simply take the place of the rich and powerful, and the cycle will continue.”
They were both silent for a long time.
“Then there’s nothing we can do,” Ninoh groaned.
“I never said that,” Hugh said gently. “The best thing we can do is lead by example. Show people another way of life, better than what they have now. Let people know that things can be changed, can be different, and show them how. Make them desire a new way of life, and if it really is better they’ll follow. And be strong enough to fend off invaders who try to take what’s yours simply because they want it. We have our volunteer army, and the Imperial Guard helps to resolve difficult situations throughout the Empire. Of course, it’d be a lot easier to invade, conquer, oppress, kill, and impose my will on others. But after me will come another king or president or emperor who will impose his will, and then another one with his will. My will you might like, but are you sure you will like the wills of other people?”
“How come you grow so much food on this island that you have enough for yourself and can share with others? How come you manufacture best things in the Empire? How come your scientists are the best among all islands? How come every time you help other islands you then leave without making them pay you contributions? How come so many people want to immigrate to Shark Island and so few want to leave it? What is that about this island that makes it so special?” Ninoh was really agitated.
I recalled what people had said about Shark Island: the worst island in the Empire; don’t even think about going there; terrible people; scum of the earth.
“On Shark Island,” Hugh was saying, “people are left alone to do the things they want to do, and they keep the fruits of their labor to themselves. And the government, starting with me, tries very hard not to interfere. Our task is to protect and to serve; that’s what we believe a government should do. There is no equality on Shark Island, but ordinary folks live better here than they would on islands where equality is the way of life. There is no democracy as it’s understood on other islands; here the right to vote is earned. Here the individual is much more important than the state. That’s the big secret that I’m willing to share with anyone who asks.”
I looked around; many people had quietly gathered in a tight circle to listen to their Emperor. There was no fear or servility in their faces; I saw agreement and respect for another person’s opinion. That’s my Hugh, I thought; he found his place. It’s time for me to find mine.
20. Home, Sweet Home
The three of us were in the Emperor’s study. “Why we can’t go back together?” I argued for the hundredth time.
“This is my home,” Ninoh shot back.
“I’m needed here,” Hugh said simply. “I have to keep the Empire going.” Neither sounded happy.
“You yourself said that less government is better. You said you don’t really do much of anything, just prevent others from governing. That’s what you said!” I insisted.
Hugh laughed. “Even here on Shark Island, oversight is important. If the laws aren’t upheld, we’ll all be in trouble. If one day somebody convinces the population that they’re obligated to help others, that it’s their solemn duty to support government organizations that help the needy, and that the government knows how to use their money better than the people themselves, Shark Island will fail. There’ll be no beacon to light the way for other Islanders. I’m afraid that one day someone will declare that the Empire is more important than the individual. That’s why I have to stay here.”
I turned to Ninoh. “What about you? You’re not obligated to protect the Empire, right? Why wouldn’t you come with me?”
“I have to keep an eye on the Emperor,” Ninoh said, “to make sure he remembers there are other points of view besides his. And to keep him from thinking that he’s the wisest and greatest and that he’s always right.”
“Thank you for this gift.” Hugh smiled and jerked his thumb at Ninoh. “Life was too smooth and easy before you brought her here.” They obviously liked each other.
“Now it’s time for me to return the favor,” Hugh announced, “with your going-away present. A gift of enormous value, from the Emperor himself.” He grinned, produced a small mirror and gave it to me. I looked in it and saw my own wonderful face. “If you really want to get in touch with us, this mirror will help us to communicate,” Hugh said.
“Have you tried it?” I asked.
“No,” he admitted, “but in theory it should work.”
Ninoh hugged me and cried a little on my shoulder. I felt sadder than I’d ever felt before. “Be good,” she said as she wiped her eyes.
“Time to go,” I said, more to myself. I had postponed my departure as long as I could, but I knew I had to go back. “Show me how it works.”
“Simple,” Hugh said. For him everything was simple. “This big mirror is a larger version of yours. Look at it.” I came closer. The mirror wasn’t reflecting anything. It was dark, mysterious and foggy. “Visualize where you want to be.”
Images filled my mind; I focused on the beach where I’d lain watching for the Moon to show itself on the night I went looking for Hugh. Suddenly the foggy mirror began to clear. I thought I glimpsed a cloud, then a full moon . . . I felt strange, like I was rising into the air. My head started spinning and I couldn’t breathe. I shut my eyes. When I opened them a few seconds later, I was on the same beach I first flew away from, using my kite with HUGH on it in huge letters.
I looked all around. It was dark and cloudy like I remembered, but my kite and a bottle of soda were nowhere in sight. I felt a drop on my cheek, looked up and saw that a storm was just about to break. No chance of the moon being out tonight, I thought. I looked for the flashlight, found it and ran home. I felt miserable. The journey, Ninoh, Hugh, everything was only a dream. Usually my dreams vanished when I woke up; once in a while I could remember them for a few minutes. But all the way home I was remembering every detail of my amazing journey. I guess my imagination is better than I thought it was.
I climbed the tree near my bedroom window and snuck back into my room. I went straight to my desk, sat down and began to write. “Less than two hundred years ago Shark Island was uninhabited, part desert and part swamp. The Emperor searched his Thousand Islands Empire for men and women of adventurous spirit, and brought them to Shark Island. He and a group of trusted friends wrote laws and made sure they were implemented. The laws were simple: people are equal; they have a right to do anything they want unless it harms other people’s freedom, health or property; everyone must contribute a small portion of what they earn to common causes, and keep most of what they earn to do with as they please: spend it on luxuries, re-invest in business, or give to children and grandchildren . . . ”
How strange that I remembered those details. But I was afraid of losing my dream and continued writing as fast as I could. “The newcomers very soon drained the swamps, irrigated the island and made the desert green. They started a lot of new businesses, created many inventions, and put no one above the law—and attracted the best brains throughout the islands. The Emperor retired after choosing his successor. Soon new immigrants were pouring in, seeking freedom of choice and retention of income. Together the citizens built the best all- volunteer army in the Empire. They helped other islands with food, medicine, supplies and when needed, military support. Unlike every other army, which tried to colonize every island they invaded, the Shark Island army always left after accomplishing their mission of aid . . .”
I stopped again. How did I know all those details? Why was I so sure that Emperors are chosen by their predecessors, that Shark Island has an all-volunteer army? What a strange thing the brain is, I told myself; sometimes you can’t distinguish between dreams and reality…
I overslept. Mom and Dad left for work and probably knowing how upset I am about Hugh decided not to wake me up. I wondered around the house, made myself a toast and tried to watch TV. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and let the answering machine answer a couple of phone calls. One was from Mom, another from my school and I suddenly jumped from the coach, saddled my bike and went there.
The school yard was empty and looked deserted. Only near the auditorium I saw some signs of life. A couple of kids were rushing in and sounds of music and singing were coming from the open doors; and I remembered that today was an election day. Our middle school was electing its president, secretary and treasurer.
On top of the entrance into the auditorium there was now a huge banner that read “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” If I wouldn’t have this weird dream at night, I wouldn’t pay any attention to it. Kennedy said that, everybody heard it thousand times and no one really paid any attention to what it means (at least in our school). But now I knew that there are few things that a country shall do for its people and only then the country can expect the people to love it and do something for it. There were many countries that people dreamed about escaping from. All those countries demanded love from the “subjects” and punished those that didn’t love them enough. I thought that a country shall be asking “What can I do for you?” not “What can you do for me?” And since the country has no voice by itself, it was the role of the president to ask people this question the day of his inauguration and every other day while in the office.
The auditorium was full of students and teachers. I saw the principal standing at the side of the stage waiting to speak. There were two mikes ready for the presidential debate. On the stage about twenty kindergarten age kids were singing an opening song for this red-letter day. The words cot my attention “He gave us wisdom” – they were singing, “He is great and powerful. He can move mountains and sun is shining upon his arrival. O-ma-ma, shining upon his arrival! O- ma-ma, shining upon his arrival!” This was very strange since I knew that the administration of our school made sure we never mentioned Jesus during classes and especially during after class activities and forbade us to “display any symbols of fait”.
But suddenly I realized that they were not singing “O-ma-ma”, but “O-ba-ma”. They were singing that sun was shining upon arrival of President Obama! Did I care? Yes. Obama is a cool guy, but I kind of didn’t like what I have heard. Next thing, I thought, they will require like on the Island of Love to take our hats off and look down when he passes.
The two candidates for the high office of the school president were recruiting supporters for the last couple of weeks and promising us anything and everything to get our votes. One contender, Mary Ann, a girl from my class was a leading advocate of taking any mention of color from our text books. If we will not mention any color “ever,” she was arguing, it will help us to become a really color blind society. Mary Ann was the favorite of our principle. Everyone thought she would win. Her mom was a member of the PTA, a good friend of the principal and was poking her nose into everything on campus.
The kindergarten kids performed their song and were led away. The principal came up on stage. She smiled at all four corners of the auditorium, looked up at the ceiling and started: “You live in historical times and see the triumph of the democracy at work. As we already talked with you in the past, many terrible deeds where done in this country. One person exploited another. But from now on it will be the other way around.” The principal smiled again her widest smile conveying to us how wonderful it will be, and continued. “I want you to say every morning when you wake up, and at least five times before you go to bed a simple phrase ‘Yes, we can!’ and I will ask your parents if you are doing it. I you do not, there will be serious consequences. And now I will make an announcement. From this very moment this school will stop grading the
students! No more grades! Why only those who are smart shall enjoy their unfair advantages? Is it just? You tell me – is it just? No, it is not!”
The school was silent for a second but then burst into cheers and applause.
“Why only talented people shall perform?” – I recalled: “Under great laws of equality the untalented people also shall have a right for fame and glory.”
“I will ask each of you to prepare a report on what our bellowed President is doing differently and better than all previous ones. I will tell you which TV and radio stations you shall watch and listen to gather this information,” she continued: “I will also tell you which TV and radio stations you shall not listen to. They are not news organizations but have the audacity to call themselves reporters. The president named them and they are now running scared. If your paper will be based on those stations, it will not be accepted. Is it clear?”
This was an interesting development. In such case, why we need more than one station, I thought. May be we shall make people to put plugs in their ears and this great and never lying station will broadcast directly into our brains? There will be less work for the students and the administration will be happy. Great solution!
In the auditorium I saw members of two rival gangs who were competing in selling drugs on campus. They could care less about the elections. They were the hardest working people of our school. Not one of them took any part in any school activity. They didn’t listen to teachers and came and go as they pleased. Each of them had an equal vote like all other kids who cared and gave their soul to the school. What a joke is this democracy they are so thrilled about I thought if you can buy votes of those that do not care. May be Hugh had a point when he was saying that the right to vote shall be earned?
Then again my thoughts returned to my weird dream. I never had dreams like this in my entire life. I have to ask Hugh, I thought, and almost choked. I think I even sobbed because a couple of girls from the raw in front of me turned their heads and looked at me in a strange way. No one knew about Hugh yet. Lately he wasn’t coming to school much. They probably wouldn’t even remember how he looked I thought.
The principal was still talking: “Who can imagine that there are Americans that wouldn’t want for all of us to get free medical care? Who can imagine that there are some people who wouldn’t want you to receive free education? Who can imagine there are monsters in our world, in our bellowed country that do not want our citizens to be fed with good food or who do not want all Americans to have their own homes? They say – who would pay for that? What a nonsense! They would throw even those children that so nicely performed here under a bus so to speak if that will bring them a dollar of profit. Those people love profits more than they love children, if they are not their own children of course! Do you know who those enemies of the children are?” and after a short pause she herself answered: “The capitalists!”
She looked at us long and hard. “Do they think about good of the country? Noooo! Do they think about your future? Noooo! They do not think about you at all! Only about themselves! Those capitalists do not care! … Do you think they care?”
A dozen well trained girls from the first raw answered “No” in one unified voice. They were the Mary Ann’s fun club; all dressed in brown shorts with a slogan “Share & Care” printed on them. They came to the debate determined to make a difference.
“Do they care?” – repeated the principal, her voice pitchy and icy. Now more students answered “No.”
I distinctly heard that one kid said “yes” under his breath.
“Do-they-care?” – Demanded the principal and now the whole school in unison and with all its might yelled “NO!”
“Who is the enemy of the children?” yelled the principal and the school answered “Ca-pi-ta- lists! Ca-pi-ta-lists!”
The kid near me who thought that capitalists are not so bad said quietly “You are the enemy.”
I looked at him. Small size six-grader and somehow resembling Hugh. Same chin looking forward, determination in the eyes, and a hidden smile.
“I do not want capitalism! Do you want capitalism?” – continued to scream our bellowed principal. She was now looking like a Voodoo preacher in the middle of a ritual dance. “I want equality! Do you want equality? Do-you-want-e-qua-li-ty?”
“Yes we do! Yes we do! Yes we do!” – chanted the school.
They were not talking about equality of opportunity I guessed. There was plenty of it in this country. Our country was particularly famous for it. They wanted a different equality. And then it donned on me. They wanted Fish Island. They wanted to get everything that others have. They wanted to be entitled! They do not want to learn to fish. They wanted someone to bring them fish every day and for free.
The contenders were already on stage. “We want more!” – jumped in Mary Ann. She was a genius in feeling of what the mob wants. “We need more! We have our needs! If they will not give, we will take! We have our rights! We want change! Not small change, but big change! We want change! We … want … change!” She was obviously auditioning for the same Voodoo University.
The whole school was on their feet going crazy. They all loved her. Even teachers and administrators were fascinated. Probably Mary Ann was an embodiment of this new wonderful generation of takers and users they dreamed about for years. The Mary Ann fans were clapping hands and chanting “Change! Change!”
The opposing candidate was nerd. He didn’t stand a chance. His name was Timothy Brandmeyer and he was a member of the young republicans club and his biggest idea was to promote a right to say prayers at lunch. I personally not against that – let people do what they want if they are not harming anyone, but this wasn’t the first priority among our school crowd.
“If I am the president,” said Timothy: “I will do everything possible to create in our school an atmosphere that will help you to achieve success in life. I already talked with Boeing labs and they agreed to let us in …” – in Tim’s world visiting Boeing labs was somewhere in between nine and ten on a scale of great things. To the rest of the school it was way below two. That’s why Tim got booed with the same intensity Mary Ann got her cheers.
“Do you want to live well?” – asked Tim and got his first agreement from the crowd. “You need to work hard…” – Boos. “Do you want free lunch?” – Cheers. “There is no free lunch!” – Boos.
“No one owes you and me anything” – said Tim: “This situation reminds me of a story with King Lear’s daughters” – this caught their attention for a moment. “Two of them lied to their king father about their unmatched love to him and got huge inheritance. The third one told him the truth that she loved him exactly as a daughter shall love her dad – and got nothing. Actually she was expelled from the country…” – the school was bored with Tim’s stories and he got booed again “But you shall understand – the country felt apart and he himself died!” – yelled Tim.
No one was listening to him. Anything he was trying to say to us drowned in shouts and noise. The student body lead by the well trained cheerleading squad in brown shirts was promised more money and free lunches and got crazy. Mary Ann was their Goddess of the moment. The teachers and the principal looked the other way. The Shakespearean story repeated itself in front of our own eyes. The crowd wanted sweat lies, not the bitter truth.
I went out to pick my bike. Behind the auditorium I saw two Latino kids and two blacks circling each other. I knew all of them, but Danny, a black boy from my class was actually a good friend of mine. This fight was going on for months now. It was race to race fight and I didn’t want to take sides. “Hi guys,” I said “What’s up?” They barely looked at me but slowed down. “Anyone’s up to play soccer?” I tried. No one answered. Then from a distance I heard a voice of the assistant principle “What is going on here?”
The name of the assistant principle was Mr. Robertson, but of course everyone called him either Mr. Robber-son, or Mr. Rubber-sun, or Mr. Bobber-scum. He liked to pat boys on the shoulders and lower backs. When a friend of mine came to him once to ask what to do about an older relative who was hard pressing him to go out together and hinted that he likes gay bars, Mr. Rubber-scum’s advice was to always have a condom in a pocket.
One of the Latino kids by the name Manuel said without looking at any one in particular “I will be here after school at five and if any of those machos are not chickens, they will meet me here.” He turned away and walked back to the auditorium. “We will be here” said Danny, “We will see who is a chicken shit.” This was usual staff and no talks about camaraderie, friendship and racial tolerance couldn’t stop the tensions. May be when we will be older and wiser, I thought, but not now.
I took my bike but instead of going straight home began peddling the streets. On a small lot of a corner shopping center I saw a de-ja-vu: a table with sandwiches, a group of people seating on pavement and chewing them and a woman with a notepad in her hands and a wary look in her eyes looking for a next victim. It was so de-ja-vu’ish that I stopped. Is it possible I am a psychic who can foresee the future?
In less than a minute I was offered to be a vocal minority, given a sandwich and after we all finished chewing them, ushered to a class. The first thing I have heard was: “Capitalism will not go down by itself. It will put a fight. And to defeat it any and all means are acceptable.”
The room was filled to the rim. Half of the audience didn’t speak any English and many were quietly sleeping or dozed out after a good smoke. Some of the present looked pretty scary to me, with scars, tattoos and dead eyes of street hoodlums. The leader of the seminar didn’t pay any attention to that. He was busy explaining the other half how the people who gathered in this room will defeat capitalism.
“Who is paying for that?” – I thought. “Someone bought the sandwiches; someone rented this room, someone paying this revolutionary and the woman outside. Who?”
“Here is one example of the class struggle” – said the leader: “Let’s say that during a peaceful demonstration three people beat up the forth one, and this forth one is an African American. And you see it… What do you do?”
There were a couple of hands up. One idea was to run away as fast as possible. Another was to help to beat up the guy on the ground. The leader laughed together with others and smiling childishly proposed his own solution. “If the guy on the ground is wearing the SEIU shirt, call for help. If the three guys who are beating him are wearing SEIU shirts, help them.” He looked at us smiling. “This is not what you were taught at schools, right? This is not your school anymore, this is life. I do not want to name names but there are a couple of people in this room who saw this Uncle Tom helping tea party people, distributing their flyers. They took the sucker aside and gave him what he deserved.
One SOB who happened to be there and had filmed this so we thought they will be in jail for a long time for all his injuries, a bit of racial slur and interference with his so-called freedom of speech. But we won the election, right! If you are on our side you can beat up anyone you want. What do you think our guys were sued for? Ha! For disturbance of peace, nothing more!”
Now everyone in the room was happy and cheering. “So you see why we need to win the next election and the next after that?”
“We were well prepared for this fight” – the leader was saying: “I personally went to a skid raw and got eleven homeless to vote… each at least thirty times,” and he laughed his wonderful childish innocent laugh again. “So you see, I personally brought at least three or may be four hundred votes to the party. And there were thousands like me, tens of thousands, all over America! And you can do the same, or may be even better.”
“Aha, political party” – I thought: “This is who is paying for everything.”
“You and I together – we have an important task to accomplish. We need to register as many voters as possible and be sure they will vote the right way. And if in order to win we will need to go to hospitals and find records of recently deceased men, so be it. Our goal is to build a just country in place of America and if the party will ask us we will cheat and kill…”
At this moment I decided to go home and got up. “Hei,” said the leader: “Where are you going?”
”Home” – I said.
“May be you didn’t like something here?” – asked the leader.
“Something” – I confirmed navigating between rows of chairs on my way out.
I was back to my bedroom, to my desk with the notes I was writing during the previous night. But now I didn’t want to write about the fictional islands, I wanted to write about my bellowed country. “America is not what it seemed just yesterday.” I began. I had no idea why I decided to write notes at all. It is Hugh who was always writing something. He was the brains, I am the muscle. Where are you Hugh?
I found remote control and switched the TV on. There was the Speaker of the House condemning domestic terrorists and comparing them to fascists. The screen changed and we were shown a full view of domestic terrorists… and I froze in excitement. There was my grandmother with several of her girlfriends carrying banners “Do not touch my healthcare.” I never knew she was involved in politics. Actually after my grandfather died she wasn’t involved in much of anything. She and her buddies played cards from morning to dawn. But now I saw her yelling at a guy who apparently was her senator and I saw in her face that she was dead serious.
The story changed to a US officer who killed thirteen unarmed American soldiers shooting at their backs. He wounded thirty more and was now in a hospital and American doctors were fighting for his life. He was killing people at close range and yelling “Allah Akbar.” The US president came to the view and cautioned us not to jump to any conclusions of the motifs of those murders and not to call this man a terrorist “before we know all the facts of the case.”
This guy was not a terrorist, but my grandmother was.
It wasn’t my country! I was in some never-land with never-laws ruled by never-people.
Hugh, I said to myself, how I miss you! You knew how to explain things and I was relying on you. Now I need to understand everything by myself.
This is when a thought suddenly struck me. What if my dream was real? What if Hugh through his magic mirrors sent me to some parallel reality, not to the world I came from? Those were not the people or the country I knew before I had my weird dream.
I didn’t want to live in the parallel reality. I wanted back to mine. What do I do?
My alarm went off. It was five and I was sure that the two gangs were gathering to resolve the issue “once and for all”… until the next fight.
Behind the auditorium I saw four black kids waiting with clubs in their hands. “Hey, guys,” I said, “Nobody said anything about clubs.”
“Shut up, if you don’t want to feel one between your ears,” one of them snarled.
I’d known all of them since our first day at school. Danny I knew even before that. We went to the same kindergarten, his parents brought him to all my parties, and I was at all his and his sister’s birthdays. He couldn’t meet my eyes. Then the Latinos arrived, five of them; two with chains, the others with knives. This little rumble was rapidly becoming a potentially lethal war. I looked at Danny and recognized the fear I saw in Ninoh’s eyes when the pirates captured her. . .
Why are you thinking about Ninoh, I scolded myself. She’s just a dream, like everything else in the Thousand Islands Empire created by your dead friend’s imagination! Just a dream . . .
Not much chance of an honorable fight now; neither side looked like kids anymore. Two street gangs were facing off, clenching weapons and hurling insults, pumping themselves up. The atmosphere was electrified. No sane person would stand in their way. And that’s when I stepped between them.
They all froze and stared at me. I just stood there staring back, first right and then left, back and forth. Then somebody yelled, “Get outta the way, you stupid SOB!” He was right of course; I felt like a stupid SOB. In a second the chains and clubs would be swinging again and I’d have to either jump away or jump in. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Suddenly a thought came to my mind. I have a family in Israel in a place called Mevaseret Zion, the edge of the Greater Jerusalem. Mevaseret is on one side of a hill, and an Arab village called Abu Gosh on the other. Abu Gosh is famous for their Mediterranean food, and the villagers live of the restaurants they built to accommodate thousands of Jerusalemites coming every day to eat or take out.
Starts intifada, Arabs killing Jews, throwing stones, and people go less to restaurants and not taking out food from Abu Gosh. The elders of Abu Gosh seat down and think how to protect their livelihood. From this day on for all the years of intifada on a road from Mevaseret Zion to Abu Gosh every couple of hundred yards was placed a chair. In those chairs twelve hours a day seven days a week were seated Arabs from Abu Gosh facing the Arab side of the hill. Each had a rifle. They were ready to shot anyone who would interfere with their business. They knew exactly where the interference might come from and were ready to shot nevertheless. During all the years of intifada there was no one single incident of violence. Israelis started coming even more often because Abu Gosh was the safest place in Israel to eat great food and take families on weekends.
Business, I was saying to myself, I need to come up with a business idea…“This war will interfere with the business,” I heard myself saying. What business? I didn’t know about any business that this or any other fight was interfering with.
“Here we have the leaders of the largest communities in our school, right?” My voice sounded far away, like it was someone else talking. I had no idea where I was going with this, but they were listening and that was good. I kept praying for a police car or any passerby, but at that hour there weren’t any.
“I’ve been wanting to discuss a business opportunity that came our way, and was waiting for the right moment when we were all together . . .” They were still listening in astonished silence.
“See, I think we all need more money. What we get from our parents isn’t enough . . .” I hated myself to repeat what Mary Ann was saying, but they were not killing each other and that was good.
“There are advertisers out there drooling over the teen market. They want to get to us and they’re ready to pay big bucks for that. And who can advertise to teens better than teens themselves?” – I was happy I came up with at least something.
“Stay out of this, you stupid jock!” Both gangs were itching to jump down each other’s throats.
Desperate, I continued even though my voice cracked. “If advertisers will pay ten bucks a month for a kid carrying a backpack with their logo on it, we can make ten thousand a month in our school alone. Even if we split fifty-fifty with those who will actually carry the ads, our gang can make five thousand just from ad agencies,” I almost shouted. That got their attention.
“Five grand a month just from some stupid ads?” asked a boy who I knew had a single mother and two sisters.
“Just from the ads,” I confirmed. “Now, people and companies make deliveries. We can offer to do it locally for half of what Fed Ex costs, right? Then there are lawns; I know how much my parents pay for mowing and raking. And marketing; companies are always looking for fresh blood, and we can supply it. We can supply them all with hundreds of workers, right? But we need a neutral zone. Do you know why?”
They didn’t. “Because if a Black kid has to deliver something on Latino turf we want him safe and sound. Otherwise he won’t go. It’s either war or money, understand?
They were beginning to. “So how do we go about it?” one of them said hesitantly.
“I’ll tell you how.” I had no idea, but I kept talking. “We form a company. Everybody here is a shareholder . . . I mean, we’re all equal owners, OK? Now, the first thing we need is a headquarters.”
“How much could we make each?” two kids asked at once.
“Let’s call advertising our first profit center,” said Danny, who happened to be our school’s top math student. “Deliveries will be another profit center, then there’s lawns and . . .”
“I know a company that’s hiring people to hand out leaflets and flyers,” another kid broke in excitedly.
“Good,” Danny said briskly. He was closing on the position of CEO of the new enterprise and I gladly got out of his way. “Now, if we can get a half dozen profit centers, with each one bringing in three to five grand a month, then for the gang we have here . . . ten of us, we can pull in a good month about two thousand each.”
“A month?” gasped the observer whose parents were considered by the school standards rich. “That’s like a fifty times my allowance.”
“It’ll be hard work,” I said. “Real work for real money. So what do you guys think?”
The Latinos looked at each other and then at the Blacks.
The Blacks looked at the Latinos and then at each other. “If you mother . . .”
“We’ll all be partners,” Danny cut it. “Partners watch out for each other, and they stand behind each other. Like brothers. Here is my hand, brothers. One for all and all for one.”
There was a moment of hesitation, but I put my hand over his and then another eight hands were on mine and the clubs and chains were on the ground. The mood had changed completely; the air was still charged, but now it was positive. Now it was time to dream and share.
Suddenly I felt something warm in my jacket pocket and reached inside. Whatever it was, it was getting hotter by the second. I pulled out a hazy mirror and stared at it. Hugh’s parting gift of my dream. My head swam; an object from a dream can’t exist in reality!
I got the creepy feeling that from the mirror Ninoh was watching me. It was a really weird feeling. Weird, weird, weird! I looked at the mirror again; the fog slowly cleared and there it was – Ninoh’s face, looking directly at me. “There’s trouble, Nik. Hugh disappeared, and I don’t know where to go, what to do,” she said. “I need your help. Come right away!”
Her voice was real! She was real! Hugh was alive but missing again! My friends needed me. “I’m coming!” I shouted. “Are you at the palace, near the big mirror? Stand aside, Ni!”
I visualized the palace, the room, the mirror . . . suddenly I felt weightless, my head started spinning, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them a minute later, I was already in front of Ninoh, who was standing there tapping her foot impatiently.
“I am so glad you are here,” she said. You could’ve seen that she was concerned and worried. “Let’s go! We can’t waste a second.”
We were together again, and looking for Hugh. I knew we’d find him, no matter what.
“Are you OK?” – She suddenly asked.
“We will find him!” – I said. “Long live the Emperor! Long live the Empire!”
A new adventure was calling me. Of course we will find him I thought. It was one of the best days of my life.
Copyright © 2009 Leon Weinstein