Spooky Action at a Distanceby Eugene Lim
from The Strangers
“He likes horror and sex movies, and James Bond.”
“In fact, most people underestimate their capacity to withstand pain.”
–CIA’s Human Resource
Exploitation Training Manual, 1983
It’s when the cop is punching my face that I make the decision. I decide to go look for my sister. My whole life I’d indulged in a stupid thrill, a very risky habit. In the middle of the night I’d sneak through the town and deface posters of the beloved president. Sometimes just a mustache over his beloved pudgy face. I kept it scatological or primitive. For fifteen years I’d done this and never got caught.
The cop is working me over pretty good. I’ve never taken a punch before. I worry about my brain and whether he’ll bust something inside me and I’ll die slowly as things that aren’t supposed to meet mix inside my sloshy guts. I’m a wet animal and I’m weeping like a child and very ashamed that I am and I’m scared.
He beats me up and then lets me go.
One of the twins is me. They’re playing a game of hide-and-seek together, which—with only two people—is also tag, capture the flag, and hot-and-cold. We didn’t call our game any of those.
This is when we’re eight. The war is looming but we don’t know anything at all about that except an exhaustion familiar already in our bones and a subdermal panic that shimmies constantly up and down our backsides.
Even though I know now all kinds of impossible things about the bomb that is about to destroy our home, it always surprises me. For instance I know that the engineer who perfected its targeting system so that it can fly around corners was a Haitian educated in Canadian universities and now retired happily to Nantes, France. I know that the casing is coated with a polymer most commonly used today in plastic wrap and discovered accidentally by a Dow Chemical worker, that the nitroamine in the bomb was developed for the US government by the son of Jews escaped from the pogroms and that this explosive was, at the time, one of the most powerful in the world, used to begin fission reactions in nuclear weapons. The government that launched the bomb was an invading nation fighting another invading nation in our soon-to-be divided poor sap of a country in a ridiculous contest called a proxy war. Does it help to know your maker? I think they were aiming for a bridge a half mile south of us.
The girl I’m playing with is older than me by fourteen minutes. We share our father’s analytic nature—he was a factory engineer—and our mother’s depressive seasons. She’s better than me at fighting, which embarrasses me since I’m a boy. I’m the better drawer and it’s a tie when it comes to sums. Right now she’s doing a slow count to ten with her eyes closed and her forehead pressed against a tree. I’m hidden behind a big rock that fell into the ditch that runs along the road to town and which we’d often use as a landmark to visitors. (“At the big pink rock in the ditch, turn left through the woods,” we’d say.) When she gets to four, the bomb explodes our home and kills our parents.
How it usually works is you get beaten up, then they let you go for a couple of weeks—both so you can heal a little bit and so you can show up at work and everyone can see how you’ve had the shit beaten out of you. Then, a few weeks later, they send you off to the labor camps on trumped up charges and you are never heard from again.
I decide I’m going to make a run for it to go find my sister. It’s something to be desperate. There are one or two people I can think of who just might have underground connections. But if I contact them I risk implicating them and what’s more, it’s likely that some of them are simply agents, lures. But there’s a woman who I think might have it in her. I sneak over to her house at night and break in. I enter the bedroom and turn on the light. She sits up in bed and looks at me as if it’s perfectly normal for a stranger to show up in her bedroom in the middle of the night. “Turn that off, you idiot,” she hisses.
I start to explain but she only says, “Shut up. Did anyone see you come here? Anyone at all?”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“You want to get out. Leave the country?”
“How much money do you have?” she asks.
That night I dream of the posters. I’m standing in front of a huge wall completely covered with propaganda posters. In my hand is a paint brush and at my feet is a small bucket of black paint. Unlike in real life, I take my time. I’m not rushed or sweating or excited. I’m only contemplating all the different possibilities.
Instead of defacing any individual poster, instead of giving the beloved president a Mohawk or tits or a tooth gap or devil’s horns or blacking out his eyes—I ignore him. The huge wall becomes an enormous canvas and I feel free to paint however I please. I reach down and pick up the small bucket and dip the brush. The bristles suck in the dark paint. I lift the brush to the wall to make a mark. Sometimes it’s a sweeping line, sometimes just a dot or a cramped squiggle. The dream keeps stuttering though and I never progress any further than that first mark. Even though I know that as soon as I continue, as soon as I elaborate on my subject, the posters will start to fade and the wall will become pure canvas and my painting can manifest itself—and then my entire uncluttered being will, so to speak, appear... And yet—almost because I know how important and wonderful this feeling could be—the dream won’t progress. It stutters and repeats with infinite variations at its opening. I toss in the bed, tortured by the inability to make the dream move forward.
I wake up and wonder about the difference between being drunk and dreaming—both so-called illusory states.
I’m in a lot of pain still. I’m looking forward, it’s strange but true, to either making it out or being caught and then shot. Either way, I feel it’ll then be done.
My sister’s learned this from someone I don’t know who. She wants to show me something. We go out at dusk when the cicadas are out. There are a lot of them. I turn to her and say, So what did you want to show me? She says, Here, and pulls some string from her pocket. Then she crouches down. I crouch too. What are we gonna do? I ask. She flips a cicada onto its back. It whirs and tries to get up. My sister makes a small loop with the string and then ties a knot around the cicada’s abdomen. Then she ties the other end of the string to her finger. Watch, she says. She stands up. The cicada continues to twitch and, as the string lifts the insect off the ground, it suddenly opens its wings and takes flight. But it is tethered by my sister’s string. She holds her finger up and the cicada flies around her hand.
The next day at work is tough. I’m required to go and report myself to the boss. He acts furious. “You couldn’t think about anyone else, huh? Now they’re going to be all over this factory like flies on shit. That brings trouble for everyone you know. Now get the fuck out of my sight.” He sounds angry but I know he’s just sad and scared. He can’t be seen or heard being nice to me. But while he’s screaming at me, he slips me a foreign bill. It’s a big gesture and there’s nothing I can say.
I work the large printing machine at a so-called publishing house. We print the propaganda magazines and only a few different books: the biography of the great leader and the state-sanctioned history books and encyclopedia. Every home in the country already has a copy of each and every winter most of our print-run ends up being burned in fireplaces—though this of course is strictly illegal.
The two days I remain at work are not without purpose. They don’t want me to touch the machines so put me in a chair in the corner, knowing I won’t be there for long. I sit in my assigned chair from morning to dusk while people become like colored air and fail to distract me and the seemingly infinite repetition of the beloved president pulses next to me: the book’s blue bindings forming a familiar and rhythmic call to submission, which I am not tempted by and anyway in which I’ve never believed. I strengthen my will.
(When we have to leave them, we tie our cicadas to a melon rind hoping they’d be alive the next day, which they never were.)
On the third night, as we’d agreed, someone knocks on my window a little after two in the morning. I open it and whisper that the back door is unlocked. I hear that door open and close. I’ve been sitting in a chair in dim light, waiting.
She looks like a country peasant, sunburned and with coarse manners, but when she speaks she sounds like someone much better educated. The first thing she says is the price. It’s nearly all my money. I go to the bathroom, pull out the special purse I’ve made and hidden beneath my pants. I return to the main room and hand her the bills. She says to turn off the light and then she slips out the door again.
I sweat for thirty minutes in the dark, thinking I’ve been cheated. And then there’s a knock on the glass. “What are you bringing?” she whispers through the open window. “Nothing,” I say. She names an alley nearby. “Go there now,” she says and disappears.
When I get there, I see a small truck with its engine idling. I go over to the passenger side and get in. In the shadows the driver looks like the husband or brother of the woman. He’s got on a field-hand’s outfit and gestures with the same rough, inarticulate manners, but after a few minutes I begin to suspect it’s the same person, that the woman who took my money was actually this man in disguise. He starts driving and I stare ahead.
The driver tells me we’re heading to a remote town several hours away. “From there someone else will take you. That’s all I know.”
I tell him, “This all seems better organized than I’d thought possible.”
The driver smiles and says, “You’re lucky. We’ve been admiring your artwork for some time. That’s why people are making an effort even though you don’t have much money.
I feel strange. I’d never spoken to anyone about my artwork and now, other than my policeman, and that by force, I still hadn’t. Now my driver has referred to it openly. He gives me a sideways look. Several minutes of silence pass before he speaks. He surprises me when he abruptly begins again. He says:
I think you’re about to be ejected out of here and thrown into a parallel universe. For a long time I wondered what that would be like. For a long time I felt like an astronomer looking up all her days and nights yearning to know how many corners the universe held, and in how many were there beings fighting over power and fighting over access to pleasures and comparing theater experiences and writing history books and poems and fashioning devious and subtle prisons for one another and efficiently murdering and healing one another—in surprising efficiency or in surprising incompetence, given the graveness of their tasks. And you are about to go where I often wished to explore, except I no longer envy you or even pity you or think it will be an exceptional adventure. Instead I think all the constructions in all the universe’s various corners are really the same. Lucky and unlucky ones might live in disproportionate numbers but in time, everything is evened out yes everything is evened out.
The driver pauses and then he says, Let me tell you about a construction I’ve made all on my own. At first it might seem strange, perhaps even insane, but in fact the more I’ve lived with it the more I think it might be universal or somehow this construction mirrors all the other constructions. It has to do with two stories I read on the internet. The first was an obituary, a small obituary, about an engineer’s suicide. He was Ukrainian and was a manager for many many years at the power plant in Chernobyl. He’d just begun his career when the disaster struck—and in fact he was not working that day. Even if he had been, no part of the disaster—which occurred in a reactor for which he had no responsibility—could be said to be his fault. He was blameless and in fact was often cited, so said the obituary, for his meticulousness, for the care taken in every detail within his purview. After the disaster, though he was of course pained and devastated, he stayed on and worked intensely on the repairs and on the plant’s re-opening. For many years afterward he went to work and diligently carried out his duties, which required some skill but even more than skill they required consistency and follow-through. There was a photograph of him. He looked thin and strong, wiry, a bit like the young Lê Duẩn or the filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky. For years he worked diligently and then one Sunday he hung himself from a rafter in the dining room of his modest home.
The other story I read is about a South Korean scientist who had a roller-coaster career because he’d made some legitimate breakthroughs in genetics and, for a while, was considered one of the top minds in his field during a moment when there was considerable competition in the creation of human embryonic stem cells—and he did it, he accomplished this, or so he claimed. He’d won the race and his team crossed the finish line, so to speak, by being the first to publish a paper in Science magazine saying they’d done it through cloning. For several months he was a national, and even an international, hero. But then, slowly, it was revealed that the experiment was a fraud, that he’d faked the evidence, that he was a cheat. It was a terrific scandal. Later on I believe he recovered, at least somewhat, and with the help of some sentimental businessmen he re-established himself as a researcher, hobbled of course, at a second-rate company, nowhere near the heights he’d been before, a superstar, but working hard nonetheless, hoping one day to make a legitimate discovery that might in some way make up for his prior act of iniquity.
The reality of these two figures is not important to me, says my driver. But I started picking them up, so to speak, and started turning these two over and over, like they were interesting jewels or delicately made figurines. And I started to create a space for them, these two, the engineer and the scientist, says my driver.
In this construction they lived right next to each other. In the morning the engineer wakes up and goes to work in the rather labyrinthine corridors of the Soviet-era power plant. There it’s clean but filled with somewhat out-of-date technology—still perfectly viable, everything in working order, but the plant is outmoded by a decade or half a decade. And, similarly, in the morning, the scientist walks through the rather labyrinthine corridors of his laboratory—but his equipment of course is all very state-of-the-art. Everything is immaculate and at the very cutting edge of possibility, gleaming and antiseptic and pure in its efficiency. I watch them, says my driver, in their respective environments. Sometimes the differences are what’s apparent. The monolithic and slow-changing apparatus of state-controlled technology on one side and on the other the ingenious and constantly morphing and adapting perfect face of capitalism’s research and development. How could they be further apart?
Yet more often it’s the similarities that I notice. They’re both very sensible and disciplined eaters, my scientist and engineer, and in the morning both have a small piece of bread or maybe a bowl of porridge or oatmeal along with a glass of juice and strong tea. In this world that I’ve made for them they both rise early. I imagine the engineer is a bachelor, rising early and staring out at morning’s dark-blue shadows, drinking his tea and maybe recalling—why not?—a few lines of Pushkin. My scientist on the other hand is married. The scientist and his wife rise together, also very early, and they quickly but also gently begin their day together. The wife serves him his breakfast. His mind is already swimming with the day’s calculations and with arraying and sorting through the methods and means by which his immaculate laboratory can make the material world reveal its secrets. Both my scientist and engineer do not taste their breakfast, their tea, until near the final moments of the meal, until the last sip or bite when somewhat automatically if not also miraculously they become aware of their setting and both think: How delicious! And the engineer savors his wonder; his whole being, unconsciously and consciously both, entirely, is grateful for his existence. A bare moment of everyday sublime for him. It’s just a moment however and then he puts his cup and dish into the sink and hurries off to work. For the scientist this last taste makes him look up at his wife and erupt in some formality, almost every morning some stiff version of it, which endears him to his wife. Something like: “Thank you for such a tasty breakfast. Now, I must be going.”
Abruptly my driver stops talking and reaches into his pocket and brings out a pack of cigarettes. He offers me one. It’s a luxury I haven’t seen in a long time and I hesitate to take it. Go ahead, he says, they’re stolen from the house of an elite dogfucker in the city—so they’re especially delicious. At his own insult, my driver erupts in a loud, sustained laughter. I take a cigarette and light up. He does the same. They taste different, almost as if they were laced with some other drug. The driver then continues.
On their lunch breaks the scientist and the engineer, says my driver, take their lunches to the same park… Not always, says my driver. Not even usually, says my driver, and in fact most days the scientist and engineer skip lunch or wolf down something at their desks. But every once in a while, the first warm spring day maybe, they decide to take their lunches in the park. Magically, says my driver, the days that the scientist takes his lunch in the park always coincide with the days the engineer takes his lunch in the park. My driver smiles saying this.
What I’m reminded of, my driver says, when I picture these two in the park, sitting perhaps at facing benches or even sometimes on the same bench, is romantic coincidence. Like in movies and novels. And I think of my engineer and my scientist like childhood sweethearts or maybe twins separated at birth, who are unaware that they’ve moved to the same city or that they travel in such closely overlapping circles. How touching the potential of meeting is! How tragic that it never comes. The scientist absent-mindedly eats his roll of seaweed and rice. The engineer nibbles on a potato-filled dumpling. They think of powerful unseen phenomena: hurtling atomic wrecking balls and spiraling chains of protein. One’s mouth runs dry. The other stares distractedly at a cloud or a bare leg. Sometimes they think of their governments and countrymen. Sometimes they picture themselves in bed at night and consider what they look like sleeping.
Even though his cigarette is good and even though he’s saving my life by risking his own in my escape—my driver is starting to annoy me. His effete imaginings are exactly what’s wrong, I think, with the intelligentsia—so called. While he’s playing his made-up games there are, I think, the death camps. I think of the police, of the constant preparation for war, of the famines, of my policeman. I take another cigarette from the pack. The driver smiles and nods giving his unasked-for permission. I think of the beloved president, of the police. I think of my policeman.
I think of my policeman. He was the local guy, not a specialist brought in. I was for once glad for our provincialism, happy my crime didn’t merit a more immediately lethal or more specialized response. In order to control my rage and my helplessness and my fear—I latch on to our coincidences, the things my policeman and I have in common. As he takes a rubber hose to my legs and back, as he cracks a rib and smacks my face, as he prods me with his shockstick and my organs burn, and as he convinces me of my imminent murder—I note that we must be the same age, that we were most likely both poor students at our elementary schools, which surely were similarly grim and obscene, and that we both—like everyone else—grew up hungry and so constantly terrified we often could forget that we were.
This only helps so much however and I cry out, miserably, “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch.” Which is a mistake because he hits me even more viciously and then I black out.
Sometimes, my driver says, late after work or early on a weekend morning, the engineer and the scientist decide to exercise. They are not poets, my scientist and my engineer, says my driver, they do not in other words forget or discard their bodies. And occasionally they suddenly remember, their bodies remind them, that they should run or lift or bend, that they need to break a sweat.
The engineer prefers lifting weights—a soviet series of maneuvers he’s learned in his army days. He grimaces and lifts, and during his resting minutes he feels something metallic released into his bloodstream, as if shaken or squeezed from his muscles. He breathes and thinks to himself with customary weariness: I’ll be dead some day and none of this will matter. Then another set of fifteen. The scientist prefers the swimming pool. So several floors below the engineer, in the gym’s basement pool, the scientist plunges into barely heated waters. (A sprawling complex, this gym, says my driver, tapping his temple.) The scientist flutters through the water, then he cuts it into blocks—swimming but without grace, a mechanic. In his mind is only the countdown of a self-prescribed series of laps, nothing more. Or, if so, only the vaguely autonomic commands: glide, stroke, breathe, glide, stroke, glide, stroke, breathe.
It’s in the steam room after their respective workouts that they meet, or rather it’s where they don’t meet, says my driver, but where they commune in closest proximity, their ignorances leaning against each other, permanent strangers. I like to think of them here, the steam obfuscating what in any case is unknowable, that is, their faces. Sweat pours off them. They sit and look at their glistening bellies and the wiry nest of their pubic hair. One jostles his nuts to a more comfortable position. Someone sighs loudly. All of a sudden, says my driver, a quiet miracle happens. My scientist and my engineer merge into one being.
His face and body are hidden by steam and his consciousness is dumb from the erasures of exertion, but I’ve no doubt of this miracle, says my driver. Behind the white curtain of steam there is only one man where just before there were two. And then, says my driver, just as suddenly the moment of congruence is over. First the scientist (or maybe it’s the engineer) leaves the steam room and then the engineer (or perhaps it’s the scientist).
I’m falling asleep during my driver’s monologue. I haven’t slept for days. I know I have to stay awake but my driver’s story is lulling even as it doesn’t seem to make much sense. I catch myself dreaming about other things: my sister and my policeman. Then I snap back. Every once in a while I light up one of his dogfucker cigarettes.
My policeman pours a bucket of cold water on me to wake me up. “So you’re going to kill me, are you?” he asks. “No, no,” I say, “I didn’t know what I was saying. Please forgive me.” I beg. My hands are bound behind my back and stretched awkwardly onto a table behind me. I’m forced into a squat. It’s a painful position. He slaps me several times, almost gently, and then without warning slams the rubber hose down on my bound arms. I feel my right shoulder dislocate and a sharp, sickening hurt signals throughout my body. Quick cycling aftershocks of pain echo through a scream I only become aware I’m making after I begin it. I snap awake in the car finding myself in a cold sweat.
Every two or three months, my driver continues, the engineer and the scientist decide to take a weekend holiday. They’re both, of course, nature lovers, says my driver, and they like best of all to take long hikes in the small nearby mountains and forest valleys. What best friends they could be! exclaims my driver, unable to help himself any longer …On the same overcast day in late autumn they both decide to take a hike. They both think: Perhaps a long walk through the woods will clear my head and provide some inspiration. And, they both think, I’m in such a rut. I need some inspiration, think my scientist and my engineer, says my driver. The leaves have long since changed color and fallen. The paths are relatively empty. Can you picture it from above? asks my driver. Can you see small mountains around a gulley through which crawls a thin, cold stream? The trees all leafless. And two moving spots: the green, down-filled jacket of my scientist and the striped sweater (a gift from his mother) of my engineer navigating the terrain with apparently no degree of gravity on each other, no attraction or repulsion, two atoms from different universes pinging past each other unawares. Like they say abroad, ships, says my driver, passing in the night.
And at this my driver laughs tremendously—an outburst of hysteria that soon devolves into a sputtering, hacking cough of dogfucker smoke.
At first, my driver eventually continues, my scientist’s and my engineer’s minds are, as a matter of course, distinct and distracted and taken up with the gritty magnitude of their daily trials. The engineer is motivated, is haunted, by the national memories of the disaster. He barely admits it to himself but he thinks he is doing noble work—harvesting energy for the collective, helping in his small way to sustain the great experiment of equality—and he struggles to maintain the corroding and crumbling plant with the drips and drabs of support the state sends. He is constantly looking over his shoulder at Entropy, who ruthlessly shadows him—it’s like a nightmare—and he knows he can never outrun the disaster, but wearily and with heavy knowledge he knows he won’t be able to stop trying. The scientist’s mind is, in its own way, also beholden to the state. He so wants to succeed, to make the breakthrough—not for his own glory (he alone, the scientist thinks, understands it’s not for his own glory) but for his nation’s. So he tells himself. And success is so close, so temptingly, seductively close. He sees in the abstract how it should be possible. It would be such a relief if he could answer all those hopes with actual accomplishment… And these thoughts of my scientist and my engineer, says my driver, hover over them and are sifted by the denuded branches, blown by a cold wind across the valley and up the low mountains, and they intermingle with the rustle and crunch of their steps breaking through the forest floor of dead leaves and with the repetitive view swelling and passing as they walk of white birch and red pine, with the unbroken gray sky above them—until my engineer and my scientist are again indistinct from both each other and from the forest so that they become united in a timeless, spaceless motion. And if you were looking down at them as I have, says my driver, and had been watching carefully as their thoughts turned from particular things to be absorbed now with only hiking, then you too might not know how intimate the world had suddenly become… until, like my scientist you found yourself back in your sedan on the highway home or, like my engineer, brushing his teeth before bed, says my driver.
In a dream my policeman seems to have my sister’s face, which is odd enough that I realize I am dreaming. I decide then that I want to establish facts closer to reality with the intention—a dream-fogged intention to be sure—that this will end my dreaming and wake me up. So I struggle to examine my policeman’s face more closely, more intently, and I remember that my policeman’s face had something very distinctive about it, namely a coarse, bushy mustache. In fact it is another thing my policeman and I have in common, a rather unique thing. I had begun wearing, so to speak, this mustache several years ago inspired by a Hong Kong actor in one of the rare foreign films that showed in our country. As my policeman is beating me I try to stare at his face with some vague intention to never forget it, to seek some vengeance upon it. But as he is beating me I instead have the thought: How odd. We both liked the Hong Kong actor so much that we both began wearing the same mustache.
My driver shakes me awake. “Here you go,” he says.
“What’s this?” I say.
“It’s a change of clothes and a wig. We’ve arrived at the handover. See across the street there? That’s the train station. Go change in the bathroom. Someone will find you.”
I take the small package he’s handing me and get out of the truck. I look at him through the window. I think he’s a fool and am about to tell him so, but when I see him sitting stiffly behind the wheel, just another fellow bumbler, I forgive him. “Thanks,” I say.
“Good luck,” he says and drives off.
I make my way to the station. In a bathroom stall I open the package and find a field-hand’s outfit—similar to my driver’s: a broad-brimmed hat, a pair of prescriptionless glasses, and a shaggy, dirty blond wig. When I emerge from the bathroom I hope I can pass as one of the bumpkins that seem to be loitering in the station. I’m a little at a loss as to what to do with myself so I take a seat on a bench. A short while later a wealthy-looking woman approaches me.
“I’ve got you next,” she says just like that and, “Follow me.” We head toward the tracks to board a train. “Go fetch the bags,” she says loudly. She points to a plump suitcase that I dutifully handle. We arrive at a private compartment and sit opposite each other. She hands me my ticket and advises that I should pretend to be sleeping when the conductor comes. I close my eyes and comply.
When the conductor does come I’ve actually fallen asleep. I mumblingly pass over the ticket I’ve been given with little idea where I am and none as to where we’re heading. He hands it back to me.
After he’s left our compartment I open one eye. The rich woman says, “Get some rest. You look tired.” In fact I’m exhausted and the rumbling rhythm of the train is a convincing lullaby. I see we’re on the coast. I can, through drooping lids, see past a short sweep of trees to the water. It’s late morning and the sun is yellow and warm on the landscape. Later on I’d realize this was the last I’d ever see my country in daylight.
I sleep for hours. When I wake up there’s a dinner tray in front of me. A small feast has been arranged on our compartment’s table: seasoned rice, thick chunks of spicy pork in a stew, raisins in yogurt, a bowl of pickled seaweed, sugarcakes and mint tea.
I devour it and gradually become aware of the train’s wobble and thrust. I look up at the rich woman. She says:
We’ll be there in about an hour. From there one more person will take you. It’ll be by a small boat. A ship has agreed to meet you in open water and take you on board and out of the country.
I don’t actually exist. At least according to the state. We’re traveling under stolen identities of course. Do you like imagining other lives and other worlds? Me neither. I find myself overwhelming enough. Which leads me to my story. I was a philosopher. Do you know what that is? No, of course not. It’s a heretical art form now rarely practiced. The state claimed it decadent and a capital offense. Ah, you’ve never experienced it. The best I can do to describe it is to call it the regular rounding up of feral but cowardly dogs who tongue-kissed you for hours. If you had an affinity for it, it could be delightful. If not, it grew tiresome quickly—and in fact the art died less from state intervention than from lack of interest.
But I was found out. A cold winter afternoon. The sky turning purple. I was at the kitchen staring at my door as if I knew what was going to happen.
Do you believe in otherworldy things? I’m a skeptic, except. On occasion there have been strange and pivotal coincidences.
I was staring at the door. A cup of cold tea on the table. A pen in my hand thinking to write something down and a blank piece of paper in front of me. Staring at the door.
They were outstandingly silent. None of the boots crackled on the frozen ground. Or maybe I was distracted. The door along with the entire small house, by the way, I’d built myself. Poured the foundation, chopped down the trees, planed the wood.
They broke down the door.
With a battering ram and an ax. It’s ridiculous because of course I would have answered the door. A polite knock would have done. Quite literal the symbols. And bombs blow you up dead. They could have approached my little home and knocked or demanded, and I would have opened up immediately with no resistance. What could I do? I was living alone in the country in a rustic house of my own simple design and construction. I was sitting there, staring absently at it when the door exploded inward. The state, the state. I’m not even sure the door was locked.
They transported me to the camps. Even before then I knew that parts of my body weren’t entirely mine. There are no inalienable rights. Anything can be taken from you. Memories, sense of self—all for the taking. I entered sub-humanhood. Where I would remain for a long time. The unseen and forgotten. The trial! You’re hilarious, hysterical ...Accused by the living dead, judged by the living dead, sentenced by the living dead, jailed by the living dead. Transformed into the living dead. A bureaucratic ballet of corpses for no one’s benefit. That is, a necropolis. So no hope there. Except the informal, random beatings were like kisses compared to what came later.
Which was a hell. Everything deadly and terrifying—just as you’ve heard, just as you’ve imagined, if you’ve bothered to imagine, if you’ve bothered to listen, if you could stand to. I won’t describe it. I’ll tell you of the people I met there.
I met a man who told me he’d run a bicycle shop. He said, especially when the weather was getting warm, the thing that most pained him was not being able to go on a bike ride. He sobbed at night because he felt ashamed and perverted that this was the thing that grieved him most. He died in the camps.
I also knew a man who was a musician and who loved to perform even if it was in the bumbling and corny marches of town parades. He was a trombonist. He confided that though he loved music, his real ambition in life was to be successfully in love. He’d tried therefore many women. He smiled as he said this. So far, he would tell me with a shrug, no luck. And he seemed genuinely disappointed. One day he decided to stop eating, and then they beat him to death.
There was a woman who so missed her two little girls (who had also died in the camps) that she pretended two other prisoners were her daughters—and talked to them, scolded them, advised them as if they were. Soon these two also died and the woman just picked two others. After a while people refused to speak to her but she simply addressed everyone by one of her daughters’ names. For her the whole world was populated only by her daughters. By the time I left the camp she was still alive and more or less tolerated.
Here’s how I got out. Another person’s story. We were very different except oddly we looked the same. We could have been twins. This is what drew us together.
One morning I awoke as usual on the cold concrete floor of the dormitory. They were bringing in new people. The first days are the toughest in the camps. You don’t know the routine. You keep expecting all you see—the skin and bones masquerading around as people, the pitiless beatings, the wounds suppurating, the freezing cold, the absurd and obscene death doled out with numbing generosity—you expect all that to be temporary. What malicious force could so wrestle with its own logistics as to keep such a hell in order? Impossible to imagine.
I don’t know how we fell in together. At the time, though it seems odd now, no one, least of all us, recognized our affinity, our near exact resemblance. It may have been during some forced march or when standing around for hours in the cold or while gulping down some rancid but rare meal. In any case we started finding each other, even seeking each other out. I quickly noticed she was given a certain amount of special treatment. She was starved and tormented like the rest of us, but she was spared the more severe tortures. At first I wondered why, but gradually she told me her tale.
She’d been a film actress abroad. She’d starred in a string of sappy melodramas that had been huge successes. In fact the beloved president saw these films and became a fan. Which is how her troubles began.
The beloved president, who fancies himself a cineaste, wanted this actress for his personal stable. He suffers from delusions of filmmaking grandeur and thinks the actress will be the perfect spark to set blaze his movie-making fire. So he conspires to kidnap her.
One night, after the premier of her latest film, the actress is seen leaving a party and getting into a limousine with an unknown man. She’s never seen in public again. As soon as she’s inside the limo she’s chloroformed and hooded. She’s taken to a private jet and further injected with a sedative. A day later she finds herself in a sterile hotel room.
So began the actress’s nightmare.
Henchmen, ministers and party heads, who were unctuous and skilled at seeming submissive when actually they were ordering her around, came to tell her about a great man, The Great Man, our beloved general, our dear leader—who wanted, she should be thrilled, to meet her and have her star in a film he’d written just for her. But she refused. At first she was simply in shock, but then she became outraged. She was an internationally known star! They had no right. She wasn’t going to act in any seventh-rate film written by a petty tyrant hack! Et cetera. She had no idea where she was. They beat her and isolated her and threatened her, but still she refused. The last straw for them was a dinner with the beloved president... They’d tried to dress her elaborately for the dinner—though she refused to wear any of their make-up. She claimed, proudly, that she’d nearly clawed the hairdresser’s eyes out—and after that, they’d just left her, naked and precisely beaten, on the floor, the evening gown on the bed. On their way out, someone whispered a quick threat. This was her last chance—and she was luckier than she knew. There was a simple coldness in this last remark that made her, finally, stand up and put on the dress.
By the time they came to take her to dinner, she was suicidal. At first opportunity she was going to lunge, to knife, to kick, to hurl—whatever it took to kill or to be killed.
But she continued to underestimate them. Three guards escorted her downstairs and stood behind her seat at a long, elegant table. There was no setting in front of her, no food or goblet to hurl, no knife certainly. The beloved president came in eventually—a chubby, average-looking man. Unlike the posters’ image but more recognizable from them than she’d expected. He sat too far away to even spit at, however she suddenly tensed to make her attack. The guards understood what she was up to immediately, and she felt two hands fall heavily and unmistakably on her shoulders. No words were said. He just looked at her and made a dismissing gesture and the guards escorted her out. She didn’t even think to scream a curse at him until it was too late.
She was sent to the camps shortly after that.
The actress and I, continues the rich woman, spend two years together there, and in that time we come to know each other very well. We notice that we start looking even more alike, until we finally become indistinguishable. Everyone thinks we’re twin sisters—except the prison guards, who only think of us as numbers.
While the rich woman is talking I recall my destination. After our parents died we were put in orphanage beginning directly after our separation, I’ve talked every night to my sister telepathically before going to bed. I also meet her in my dreams. When my policeman with the mustache was beating me, when I passed out, I asked my sister where she was—and she named a glamorous foreign city. It seemed a particularly impossible destination, but it turned out to be, nonetheless, impossibly, where I find myself now heading.
Some nights before bed I would ask my sister, How do I know you are real or if you are still alive or if you remember me? And my sister answers only with silence—and between us this is a perfect joke.
One day, the rich woman continues, the guards come and take away the actress. I torture myself thinking the worst possible thoughts. But the next day she comes back.
She reports the beloved president has written another film script and wants her to reconsider her position.
In return he will release her from the camps and give her the relatively luxurious options afforded the political elite: relaxed travel restrictions, her own house with servants, and the highest-quality food possible in our famine-stricken nation. Of course she’ll become a different kind of prisoner, but it would be a paradise compared to her current situation. I tell her she shouldn’t turn it down. The actress tells me she’s negotiated my release along with her own. I am to be a servant in her house, a maid. To me, it’s a miracle—but there is a condition. She won’t do the acting. She refuses to act for the beloved president. She tells me I have to do it. She asks will I do it? Will I become the actress so that she can become the maid. I say yes without a second’s hesitation.
The movie the beloved president wants to make is, I’m rather surprised to discover, a kind of science fiction film as well as, I’m not at all surprised to discover, a political allegory… In a sprawling, vertical metropolis of the future, the population is divided into oppressed workers and factory owners. The son of the foremost capitalist is awakened from his life of privilege by a woman—the character I play. She acts as a kind of prophetess for the workers. She predicts an end to the workers’ suffering, a revolution, an enlightenment... Discovering this, the chief capitalist invents a robot in the image of the woman to sow distrust and confusion in the minds of the workers. The robot-woman incites the workers to riot and to destroy the city’s generators, which inadvertently causes a flood in the worker city. The workers now believe all their children are drowned. (However, the son of the chief capitalist and the woman have in fact saved all the workers’ children.) Feeling betrayed, the workers now go on the hunt for the woman whom they believe so recklessly incited them to riot. They nearly lynch her but at the last moment capture the robot-woman instead. After a climactic battle, the workers realize their children are still alive. In the end the capitalists and the workers are united in a pact based on the common good.
It’s hard to describe why—the script is not uninteresting, lavish amounts of money are spent on costumes and sets, and we all try exceptionally hard to not disappoint the beloved president (not the least of all because we fear how he’ll react to a failure)—yet we only manage to make a rather clumsy and boring picture. Of course this is a semi-secret—since every screening ends in a prolonged standing ovation and our so-called journalists are in a stiff competition to see who can heap together the highest mound of shit in praise of it. Nonetheless everyone can see it’s a failure. And even the beloved president, after enough time has passed so as to not lose face, even he quietly withdraws the film from exhibition.
The great general never tries, after this attempt, to make a movie again. My own fate however has changed. I am now a recognizable face—and the same journalists who propped up the dear president’s soft directorial ego also manage to enshrine me as a kind of political angel.
It is decided that I will anchor the nightly news.
The propaganda department comes up with the idea. In the movie I’d been the prophetess, a catalyst for revolution but also a symbol of hope and integrity. What better vehicle, so it is proposed, to sanctify the hopelessly skewed version of reality the state requires to prop up its weird religion.
At the time though, I don’t see it so clearly. I’d undergone a strange transformation of my own during the film’s production. I had found I enjoyed being a star, being a member of the elite. It isn’t merely the luxuries—though certainly they helped—but it’s the various temptations of power that finally corrupt me. These temptations are insidious but powerful, especially to me, a woman who had heretofore always been on the bad side of a blow. As soon as I receive special treatment I come to expect it, enjoy the buzz when entering a room and the subtle and unsubtle deferences that are made to me. The whole thing very quickly becomes intoxicating.
I report what they tell me to say, almost proudly, almost believing in the utopian social contract I hawk nightly.
Somewhere deep down, actually not deep down. Just behind the exposed skin of my eyeballs. Just there I know the truth. That what I am reporting is fantasy. Falsehoods. Lies. But as you know, in our country, in our time, reality is a flexible notion, an unimportant one, if we’re being honest, compared to the notion of the state, which is another word for paradise. And even though there is a place in my body that knows what I am doing, strictly speaking, is lying, I also know that I want more than anything to live in paradise, to continue to live in paradise, to help construct and preserve paradise. That seems like a simple calculation. I’m not even in conflict with myself, I think.
My maid at the time sees this transformation. I mean my friend, the former actress. With a rising sense of disgust and terror she sees me change from the executor of a very important joke she’d instigated into the worst part of what she’d been thumbing her nose at. She tries to talk to me about it, but I, at first, deny it. And then I say she can’t understand because she’d been born an outsider, couldn’t see that we live in this world now, that there isn’t anything else. And then I rebuke her and say she’s become a traitor to the state.
She withdraws then. She sees that I’ve lost my mind. And she is frightened too that, in my hysteria, I’ll incriminate her, turn her in.
Later on she confesses to me that that time, the era of my betrayal, was her most difficult. Even worse than being kidnapped and violated and imprisoned was this perversion and cooptation of her friend and sister into the machine that had kidnapped, violated and imprisoned her. She feels as if a weed or as if some kind of cancer had taken root inside her and intertwined inextricably with her guts and her bones and her heart. It would have been a capitulation at this point to kill herself. Surviving, enduring, was important, was the point, she told herself. But so was destroying this long-tentacled parasite that had somehow become part of herself. She had to destroy herself and she had to live. There was, she thought, no solution.
She goes to a witch. She is desperate. There are still witches. Like the poor and like soldiers and prostitutes, there will always be witches. She can’t bring herself to confess fully to the witch. She can only say, My sister is sick. But the witch seems to understand everything. The witch asks her, Do you pray? My friend says, Never. The witch says, When you shit—
My friend interrupts, When I what?
When you shit, says the witch.
Yes? says my friend.
When you shit you should pray that your sister will be saved.
From then on, following the witch’s careful instruction, my friend performs a daily ritual of exorcism. When the news comes on, when my face appears on the state channel my friend will go to the bathroom. She’ll leave the door open so she can see my face. The sound will be turned low, but she can still make out my voice, speaking those lies. And she will shit. She will shit very carefully, as carefully as she can. It feels odd at first. She is skeptical, but she is also desperate. So she performs the ritual as exactingly as she can. She shits carefully and with all her body and mind and she keeps only one thought throughout: Save my sister, save my sister, save my sister…
And it works. Not immediately but gradually I let a first dim then brightening horror illuminate my brain. Reality begins firming up. So then I find myself in a truly fresh hell, unspoiled and virgin of my awareness until then. I wake up fully, a sentient cog in the propaganda machine… I realize in a flash how corrupt I’ve become, how I’ve traded truth for favors.
Then I’m awake. Immediately and feverishly I concoct all kinds of plans, all kinds of vengeful schemes as well as public and therefore suicidal outbursts of protest—but in the end my maid stops me. She says we have connections and mobility and we can use them to discredit the state, to build up the underground, and to be righteous terrorists…
And that’s what we’ve done, but I’m afraid too cautiously.
Every moment I wonder if self-annihilation might not be preferable to this, a complicity too slyly subversive. My maid had thought, and I have thought, that survival was a type of victory, indeed the only available form of it, but I wonder if it isn’t in fact a most fundamental defeat.
Sometimes at night I turn to her, my maid. Or she turns to me, her imposter. And we torture ourselves, each other, with impossible questions, asking if the state hasn’t succeeded absolutely and made us our own jailers, and hasn’t indeed made our every thought a jail. And, we say to one another, if this is truly the case, says I to my maid or my maid to me, then perhaps it is not a jail at all and we are actually in the paradise the state had long-ago promised and in truth has fulfilled, despite our ignorance—and we moreover suffer continuously and unnecessarily out of pride and foolish apostasy.
The rich woman then stops speaking. I look out the window and see that the train is pulling into an empty station.
This is your stop, the rich woman says. Someone will meet you on the platform. Goodbye.
Goodbye, I say, a sour taste in my mouth. I think the rich woman’s justifications are even flimsier than my driver’s. “Just kill yourself and be done with it,” I want to tell her. But I just stand up and leave the compartment and get off the train.
I’m the only one on the platform and, after the train leaves, a beautiful quiet arises and comes over it, as if a fog. It’s the middle of the night now and I pace the platform waiting for whatever that is going to happen next to happen, growing increasingly tense, working myself up once again to have a conversation with Lord Death, attempting to accept his intimacy but never succeeding, still very begrudging. Which means only that I am terrified. I pace the platform, unable to penetrate the broad murk that surrounds the station’s weak arc lights. A man with a gun then emerges from the shadows.
It is my policeman.
I should jump off the platform and run into the night, take a desperate chance, but something—perhaps the rich woman’s tale—stops me from running, makes the idea seem disgusting. I square off against him.
Before you do something rash, he says, you should know that I’m not here to arrest you. I’m your final chaperone, the one who will take us to the ship that is to take us out of the country. He lowers the gun. Follow me, he says, and turns his back to me and begins to walk away.
I suppress for the moment the urge to tackle and throttle my policeman. He still has the gun after all. I let him lead me through the station and into the night. We take a narrow path through some trees and come out onto a beach. We walk down the beach for an hour before coming onto a dock with a wooden rowboat. We row out to a designated spot where we are indeed picked up by a ship.
While we’re walking on the beach to get to the rowboat the thin sliver of moon only occasionally comes out from behind dark clouds. At that time he asks, What if I said this had been a long-considered plan to liberate us?
Give me the gun, I say.
He stops walking and turns to look at me. He shrugs and hands me the gun. It isn’t loaded, he says.
I point the gun at the policeman’s head. It isn’t loaded, he repeats.
Click, click, click.
You weren’t lying.
No, he says, a bit ashen-faced.
I take the gun and strike his head as hard as I can. He falls to the sand.
Get up, I say. He slowly rises.
I strike him again with the gun, a crack to the side of his head. He goes down a second time.
Get up, I say. Again he slowly rises.
I move to strike him, but this time he anticipates the blow and tackles me.
It is an even wrestling match. I’m hoping to kill my opponent but am injured and weak and have no training. My policeman on the other hand, while well-trained and relatively at full strength (aside from the two vicious blows to his head I’ve delivered with satisfaction), seems determined not to kill me, for us to continue together. He pants that I’m acting insane, that we are close to escape, that we are necessary for the other to be allowed out. I’ve lost the gun. I look for a rock to bash in his head, but there’s only sand. Why me? I ask him as he tries to pin me down and as I do my best to rip out his eyes. He grabs me by the hair and takes me to the water. He throws me down and puts his knee on my back and thrusts my head into the water for a long while. He lifts my gasping head. Okay? he asks. I swear at him. He dunks my head again and lifts it out of the water. Okay? he asks… Okay, I eventually answer. He stands up and lets me rise. I then tackle him again and we wrestle for some time more.
About the Author
EUGENE LIM is the author of the novel Fog & Car (Ellipsis Press). “Spooky Action at a Distance” is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Strangers (Black Square Editions).