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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The 21

Good day. In my continuing work to get writings out into the world, I submit this piece imagined and written after a dream in 1986, which would have made me 35 or 36 years old at the time of its completion. I've been working on minor rewrites of rediscovered  pieces and will continue to post as I finish them. I hope you enjoy...

The 21
Scott Gardner Merrick

Re-imaged from
Karl Ivanovich pressed on.

He trudged through this frigid midnight’s sooty snow toward his tiny room on the city's dingy fringe with his fur-capped head lowered into the freezing gusts, heavy boot over heavy boot, as he was all too used to doing.

The thick wolf ruff of his overcoat collar was turned up to protect against the intrusion of that icy wind. He was thinking about nothing.
The mind of Ivanovich was empty.
There was a reason for this. The mind of Ivanovich focused with enervating regularity twelve to fifteen hours per workday, six or seven days per week-depending on the season, with ninety to ninety-four per cent of its Practically Functional Capacity spent on keeping books for the State.
These percentages had been verified by the Party.
As a result of this tremendously focused effort, maintained as it was for incredibly long periods of time, a time of mental emptiness was needed. Some other comrades simply sat at their work-desks for an hour or two after the figurative whistle had sounded; Karl Ivanovich preferred to make his way home by foot, by foot, by foot—letting his footfalls lull his mind to rest, breathing the cold night air regularly and deeply until no thought could penetrate the imaginary tank traps and fortress walls his mind had constructed during the day and into the night. In this way he regularly made his way toward home, reaching it sooner than he otherwise would, and arriving more rested. Tonight, his neatly trimmed full brown moustache was encrusted with ice and particles of snow. The air was so cold that the hairs inside his nostrils had become brittle with it. 
His feet knew which way to steer his large frame. The entire trek was over five kilometers, and it normally took him two and a half hours, give or take a half an hour. 
When he arrived, he would no longer be mentally exhausted, but he would have added on a layer of physical stimulation and be very, very tired. A cup of thick black tea, with perhaps a small lump of crude sugar, along with a bowl of thin soup, would be enough to send him to sleep, until the first hints of the next day would invariably awaken him, and he would rise, wash sparingly, eat a modest breakfast; and then he would catch public transit back to his small office. He enjoyed listening to the way the train wheels percussed upon steel rails.
Sometimes, as was the case tonight, a flickering mental image of a steaming teacup would intrude upon the emptiness of his mind as he strode along and it would cause him to interrupt his reverie with an instant of near-normal consciousness. 
He looked up. 
He was approaching the corner of Malenkov and Kochetov streets, an intersection his boots knew well. At this time of night there never any traffic, pedestrian or mechanical, and so he once again lowered his head into the wind and pressed on. 
WUUMPH!!! He was knocked off balance by a person who rounded the corner at precisely the same instant as he. 
In trying to regain his balance, Ivanovich lost it completely. It was the fault of the compressed snow at the corner of the sidewalk, which was slick underfoot, and he cursed  loudly as he went down, flailing out for support and catching only a handful of ruff from the collar of the other fellow's overcoat. The fall took the wind out of him. When he could sit up, he did, and he craned painfully around to witness the tall figure of a man, dressed much the same as he, receding hurriedly off into the heavy darkness in the direction of his own home. The other man had not even uttered so much as an apology. 
Karl Ivanovich picked himself up, muttering under his breath about rudeness and incorrect manners, and he swiped wet brown snow from his coat. He sighed deeply and crossed the street, attempting to regain the regularity of his breathing.  Before he could accomplish that, he heard a commotion behind him and started to turn around. Before he had completed the turn, the heavy impact of a bullet slammed into his right shoulder and he heard the loud report of a large pistol, oddly in that order. He fell again, this time for a long, long time. 

Karl Ivanovich awakened in pain. 
He made no sound as his disjointed senses attempted to piece together this puzzle. A numb stiffness in his shoulder. Cold, a not unusual sensation. A pungent antiseptic odor. Gray walls, unfamiliar, clean ones. Blaring fluorescent ceiling light. 
They took him from the hospital barracks soon after he exhibited signs of consciousness. Sometime during the move, he passed out. He awoke in a bed in a dank cell. Bars in the window of a single small steel door. 
For several days no one spoke to him. A jailer came in twice daily with coarse bread and thick gruel, each time taking away the wooden plate and bowl left the previous visit. 
Once a doctor came in and changed the dressings on his shoulder. When the flesh had been laid bare, Ivanovich saw the ugly scab which had formed over the gunshot wound. It appeared to be healing. The doctor's work was carried out in silence, except for the prisoner's single attempt at communication. “Please, Comrade Doctor, please, tell me. Why was I shot? Why am I here?" 
He implored the doctor, the skin surrounding his large brown eyes wrinkled in perplexity, "Why, Comrade?" 
The only answer was silence. 
The wound was treated with a gelatinous substance and bound with clean bandages, then the doctor packed up his beaten black satchel and departed.
Never once had the Comrade Doctor’s eyes met those of Karl Ivanovich.
Karl kept track of passing time by scraping a notch in the mortar between two granite blocks in the wall of his tiny cell at the end of each day. At the end of the 15th day they came for him.
Two large guards in the drab uniforms of the State came and fitted his hands into heavy manacles and his feet into wide iron collars connected by a single heavy iron chain. Karl could tell immediately that words with these men were useless. 
What could they communicate that could be of any use to him? 
Out through what seemed like miles of gray corridors he was led. He found it difficult to walk with the heavy chain, but not impossible. The guards seemed to have had a great deal of experience leading men in chains: Once when they reached a short flight of three steps, they simply picked him up under each armpit (the right shoulder cried out, but Ivanovich did not) and hoisted him up. Into a small waiting room he was taken, and the two guards left him alone there. The door shut without a sound. 
All Ivanovich was sure of was that he was in trouble. Think as he might, he could not produce in his mind any reason for the Party to treat him so despicably. He was a hard worker, he was in no way decadent, and he was not publicly critical of the State. He was, though, impossibly confused. 
A single guard entered the room. 
"Karl Ivanovich," he stated, "please rise and follow me.”
Karl struggled to his feet and shuffled through the little door and into a dank smelling empty courtroom.
He was led to an ancient heavy wooden stool, upon which he sat. He slowly raised his head to survey the other occupants of the room. There were only three. A stern looking magistrate glared down from an elevated podium. An angry looking guard stood behind the judge, not glaring at Ivanovich, but certainly glaring at the world. An emaciated clerk sat directly across from the defendant, looking bored.
"Guilty as charged," he heard the judge say, "of the theft of a loaf of bread. You are sentenced to hard labor in the Wilderness Labor Camps for a period not to exceed thirty years.” 
Karl Ivanovich wanted to scream, but he could not. Something inside him denied that what appeared to be happening was really happening. Later, he would put a name that "something." He would call it: "Foolishness." 


He opened his eyes, which fought against the opening. They felt as if they were glued shut, but the truth was that they were frozen shut. 
As his eyes adjusted to the dim, scattered light, a loud and constant rumbling bombarded his ears, and the distinct piercing aroma of stale urine and feces dug into his nostrils. 
Yes, he thought, the train. 
He lay there for what might have been a long time. The exact duration was difficult to ascertain since nothing changed: It might have been an hour; it may have been two days. The straw upon which he lay did not change. The uncertain light which filtered through cracks in the rail car did not change. The ice which encrusted the flat iron grid which enclosed Ivanovich 's tiny cell did not melt or grow perceivably thicker. 
The heavy roaring of steel wheels upon steel track did change. It was changing all the time. There was a murmur, then a roar, then a stage whisper—a very loud one; then a maddening, deafening whining followed by a gentle tattoo, then a little rat-a-tat-tat. Underneath it all droned heavy bass ostinato, forever and always it seemed to say. Then the roar would steal back into the song, followed by another long murmur. Sometimes Karl Ivanovich would come to believe that he had heard all the permutations; and just when he was sure of that, a new sound would manifest itself.
He sat up. The effort drove his breath from the warmth of his body out into the harsh cold of the freight car. Thick clouds of it hung heavily in the air, and then, like hope, were gone. "You afraid?" he heard a hoarse male voice inquire.
Am I afraid, he wondered, "No," Karl answered, although he did not turn his head toward the sound of the other 's voice, ”no, I have traveled beyond fear into a place that is colder than any other.”
Then, laughter. It began as a low chuckle, a gurgling, really, and rolled up into a quiet, shaking hysteria. After a few moments Karl arose and took notice of the one who mocked him.
The creature seemed to occupy most of the adjacent cell. It was, or appeared to be, male, from the deep timbre of its noises, but whether it was human was another question altogether.
The cells were a uniform size, and Karl recalled counting them upon entry. There were twenty-two of them, each occupied by a prisoner, each loosely carpeted with straw, each furnished with a single bowl for defecation and urination. By noon, somewhere between three days and a week into the journey to the outlands, the bowls all overflowed onto the cell floors. The corner of each cell had become an excretion zone, with the bowl occupying a space at the corner and serving as a target.
Now, the giant next door was aiming his shriveled member at his own target/bowl. He was not really hitting it because he was laughing too hard. He finished his business and buttoned the fly on his heavy wool trousers, and then lumbered over to the iron bars which separated his cell from Karl's.
His huge hands grasped the bars and his filthy face pressed up against them. It was a grotesque visage, framed by wild long greasy hair and a thick red and brown beard, the forehead protruding massively under bushy red eyebrows, and a malformed bulbous node at the end of the large crooked nose.
"Let me look at ya. Ah, yes," the giant hissed, and hissed again, "Ah, yessss, a Comrade from the City.” His head turned this way and that, like that of an inquisitive lower primate checking out the new arrival at his zoo cage.
"Not afraid, are ye." It sounded more a statement than a question.
"I have done nothing wrong."
"Not afraid, because nothing wrong have ye done,” he growled, and then his tone of voice changed altogether, became civilized, almost delicate. “How curious, how infinitely baffling." The huge man appeared disappointed and turned away from the bars, muttering under his breath.
"Wait!" Karl stood up, painfully, for he had been without exercise for days, at least. He shuffled to the bars, "My name is Karl Ivanovich, and I think we need each other.”
The giant uttered, “Need? Need? What we ‘need,’ my friend, is a weapon. We do not ‘need’ each other." He had to bend slightly to stand upright, but now he did, and he re-approached the cell divider. My name is Aleksandr Denentyev, Comrade Karl Ivanovich, and I am a thespian, not a criminal.”
Karl saw something like a great sadness in the eyes of this gigantic man. He asked quietly, "What was your supposed crime, Comrade Denentyev? "
The giant chortled, then spoke in a decidedly British accent, "It so happens that I did kill a man. But he was attacking me with a loaded weapon. I protected myself with these." He outstretched his mammoth hands, palms outward.
"I have talked with many fellow prisoners since my capture, " he continued, "and some of them are guilty. Quite so. Many are innocent. In the end, it makes no difference once the corrupt courts get ahold of them. Of us. Slave laborers are all the judges want, though they have no shortage of them. Of us." He lowered his wide-set eyes and mused, "It is the System. We are no more or no less products of it now than we were at our ‘honest’ professions.”
Denentyev’s bulk sidled away from the bars, off to another corner of his ridiculously inadequate cell. “I must rest. Soon I will have a new kind of Quota to meet, and I suspect that the punishment for not meeting it will be somewhat more stringent than loss of a bonus. I must gather my strength and be prepared to work."
Karl heard him murmuring something about "outrageous fortune,” but he could not understand anything else the giant muttered. After a while, both men lay on their cell floors, having fallen asleep again.
Sometime later, Karl made the acquaintance of his only other neighbor, in the cell across the narrow aisle, one Vsevolod Vardovsky, a student who also professed innocence. His crime:  the theft of a book. The boy appeared not well to begin with, and by the time the Keeper came to empty the slop bowls and to dole out a skin of water and a chunk of stale bread to each starving prisoner, there was that ore less body to feed.
The Keeper, a silent, grizzly old man with a weighty wooden staff slung over his shoulder, moved from cell to cell repeating the same routine—handcuffing each prisoner through the front bars of his cell, tossing down the food and water in one corner, and dumping waste from the bowl into a large barrel he dragged along the rail car’s floor behind him. Finally, he would relock the cell and retrieve his single pair of handcuffs and then move on to the next prisoner.
Karl learned all of this only by pressing his face to the bars and watching as the Keeper made his way down the center aisle. His own cell was located at the forward end of the car, beside a door which presumably led to a connecting platform and then to another car. Were there other prisoners? Other cars?
So the old troll made his way first down the side of the car which contained a dozen cells, and then back up the other side, where the space which could have held a twenty-third prisoner was occupied by a heavy sliding door. In the last cell lay the corpse of the student. The Keeper was angry when received no response  to his order, “Get up, you little girl,” he growled, “If you don 't get up and come to me, you will have no food nor drink until I come again, and who knows when that may be. There is an important card game in the guard car, and I am ahead. GET UP, come on, you son of a hog. No? You will live in your own stench a few days more, then.”
"He won’t live at all. He's dead.”
The voice was that of Karl Ivanovich, and the Keeper's fury now turned upon him. SMACK went the Keeper 's staff on the bars. “Don’t you ever speak to me unless I order you to, swine! Do not you ever stick your thieving nose in where it does not belong!”
"He was a Christian, and he wanted me to plead for you to see that he has a Christian burial,” Karl spoke with a level voice.
"I’ll show you a Christian burial, you smart bastard! "
The key clanked into the iron door and the door was yanked loudly open. Vsevolod Vardovsky was dragged out by his worn leather boot heels and left laying twisted upon the floor while the Keeper strode to the sliding door of the car. Biting wind rushed in, and a minor uproar issued from the cells. He returned, smiling grimly, and lifted the student up over his shoulder.
"Oh, "snarled the Keeper, "I haven’t prepared the body yet.  Here, let me anoint it with oils. He grasped the student 's lifeless hair in his fist and dunked the dead face into the barrel of waste. It came up dripping brown green.
"There, there young man, that should freeze nicely and keep you your baby-like expression for all eternity.” The animal smiled broadly at Karl Ivanovich before carrying the student down the aisle and standing him at the open door. “I commit you to your god, you pig-sucking son of a whore,” declared the Keeper as he shoved the reeking corpse roughly out the door.
"Come here.” He was back at the front of Karl’s cell. “Give me your hands again. Karl did as he was told and was once again handcuffed to the front of his cell. His food and water were taken, and the cell door relocked. The jailer released him, and his watery eyes met the cold stare of Ivanovich. 
"Maybe you will join your friend next feeding day, Samaritan. “I will try to come up with a new and even more entertaining ceremony.” 
Days passed. 
The straw. The bars. The ice and the clouds of breath. The omnipresent stench. These things remained. 
The rattling booming of steel on steel and the rushing whistle of wind and snow stayed with the prisoners. 
Despair did not leave them, not for an instant. 
Karl Ivanovich lay on his left side, his left arm asleep and perhaps dead forever. His breath was regular and shallow, and he stared at the bowl in the corner of the giant’s cell. What we need is a weapon. 
With an effort whose presence surprised him, he rolled over and pulled himself over to the bars which separated his cage from that of Aleksandr Derentyev. 
The giant slept. 
"Derentyev, " Karl choked out, "Derentyev. Wake up.” One large eye opened in that hairy jumble of a face. 
"I want to thank you for breaking bread with me. But it was not enough. There is one thing more thing you must do.” 
The other eye opened, and one thick brow curled slightly. 
"Break your bowl for me, Thespian.” 

The door at the front of the prisoner car creaked and the Keeper heavily stepped in. The noise of the train's passage was shockingly loud beyond the open door. The jailer stood for a moment, staring into Karl 's cell before reaching outside the car and dragging in his barrel and bag. 
"Pig-turds, oh darlings, he called tauntingly, "rise and shiiine. I’ve come with your eggs and potatoes, your steak and your wiiine.” He peered into Karl’s cell for an exceedingly long time, as if to assure himself that the still lump at the back of the cell was indeed as lifeless as it appeared to be. 
The key jangled into the lock, and the grizzly old man entered the cell, his staff pointed at the lifeless corpse. He took two steps into the cage and brought his staff heavily down upon its leg. 
There was a heavy thud and that was all. 
He took hold of the dead man's heavy boots and dragged him out of the cell, leaving him bent and crooked on the floor as he moved heavily down the aisle to the side door. It slid open, and once again the icy wind rushed in. This time, though, there was no sound from the prisoners. That struck the Keeper as strange, and he turned slowly to survey the cells. What he saw was a dozen faces, tired and in various stages of dishevelment and exhaustion, uniformly pressed up against cold iron.
"So. The swine want their feed, " crooned the Keeper. “It looks as though the twenty-two has dwindled to twenty. But never you mind, you see, I get paid whether I arrive with twenty-two or with two. The Party, the Party knows it is a long and difficult journey. Long and difficult, yes, it is. I am paid by the rail mile, not by the prisoner! Ha,” he laughed,  “and,” he looked back up the aisle to where the dead man lay, “we’ll be stopping tonight, you see, we'll be stopping tonight at the rail station outside of Kirtutsk for food and water and fuel to take you deeper, yes, deeper into the deep deep taiga, where you will work to build this world, yes” he spoke to them all as if they were a seated assemblage of Union Workers, and he shuffled down the aisle, shouldering his staff. “Yes, many hands, light work, hee, hee.” 
The lifeless body of Karl Ivanovich was much heavier than that of the student, so the Keeper dragged it to the door instead of throwing it over his shoulder. It was in the dragging that both arms fell out behind the corpse, and the Keeper noticed that there was something in one of the hands. 
“Wha…” the man began to ask, but it was too late for questions. 
Ivanovich was up and knocking over the jailer with a stout hammering of his fist to the man 's forehead. The old man grappled for the staff on his shoulder, but again, too late. Into his throat something was deeply driven, and Karl felt the burning heat of the man's blood flood over his hand. He ripped the sharp fragment of bowl sideways and the Keeper collapsed in a heap, his head all ajar on his blood-spewing neck. 
Karl Ivanovich stared down at the man he had killed. 
Into his pocket went the sharp shard of wood from Derentyev’s broken bowl. He rifled the jailer's pockets and came up with the precious key. From the dead man's shoulder, he slipped the staff. He held it up so that it gleamed brightly in the soft light. It was a beautiful thing, and he pointed it at the corpse and squeezed the handle just so. 
A pinpoint beam of blue light issued from the business end of the staff, and it lit upon the mangled face of the Keeper. The shaft of light vanished and so did the ugly head. 
Karl strode to the open door and took a deep breath of fresh cold air. 
Luminescent snow globes blew past almost horizontally, their speed enhanced by that of the train car. The dazzling blue sheen of them was almost blinding. Each crystalline bulb was different in shape from all others, and Karl looked out over the plains, witnessed their bursting by the millions upon impact with the glistening yellow ground. Beyond, out beyond the taiga, the bright turquoise forest spread out forever. There was shelter there, and there was forage, and whole new worlds to be fashioned out of those vast wells of raw material. 
We will disappear into those forests, enter those hills and find us a valley, he thought. And when we have built something, we will make our way back into the city and we will steal us some fine women and disappear again. We will make a world. We will make our own Party. Our Comrades will be our true brothers, victims of the Old Way, harbingers of the New.
The New World 's New World.  
We will call ourselves The 21. 
In but a few moments he had freed the other men. They were bunched up behind him at the door.
He leaned his face out into the cold rushing wind. Off in the distance he could just make out the tiny image of Kirtutsk, a large city really, the connection not only between the cities and the Wilderness but also between Earth and the New World, replete with shiny steel towers and, there, the little bubble, the gigantic bulb, which enclosed the living quarters of a million and a half people, with its Elevator Lines stretching out into the white sky on up, on up to the orbiting station. 
Through the swirling blue ice snow he could only just make out the shape of one giant shining sun, glowing blue, but indistinct. Perhaps if it cleared later in the day the little red sun would be visible, too. Perhaps it would warm. A little.
Oh, but he felt alive, for the first time in years. 
It was time to get to work.

He jumped and rolled. 

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