Maragana Girl Ch. 06bycaligula97236©
Chapter 6 -- The Day of the Dead
In the middle of September there was another indication that Kim was becoming more settled in her new life in Danube City. She sat at the table of Sergekt's mother for the first time. Danubian social protocol mandated that any social contact between a young man and a young woman had to be preceded by the young man sitting at the table of the woman's father, or in the case of Kimberly Lee, her guardian, Spokesman Vladim Dukov. Sergekt had complied with that custom and now came over to the Dukovs' house once a week for dinner.
The second phase of the social protocol, that the young woman sit at the table of the young man's parents, only took place if the young man decided that he wanted to become romantically involved with her. By the middle of September Sergekt had decided that he wanted Kim to become his girlfriend. He asked Kim to eat at home with his mother and aunt. She accepted, not fully understanding the seriousness of what he was proposing.
The afternoon before Sergekt arrived to escort Kim to his house, Dukov sat in his library, wondering about the consequences of what was about to happen. He liked Sergekt tremendously. He had all the makings of an excellent Danubian citizen. He was brave, determined, and had "proper values". He clearly understood the importance of friendship and protocol. The fact that he was a convicted criminal did not bother Dukov at all. If Anyia were just a couple of years older, the Spokesman would have been very pleased if Sergekt had shown an interest in her, collar or no collar.
Dukov was somewhat puzzled by Sergekt's interest in Kim. Kim was very different from a typical girl from Upper Danubia and obviously would make a fascinating friend for anyone. However, to become romantically involved with her was quite another issue. At the end of two years Kim would be going home to the US. Did he hope to go to the US with her? Did he expect that Kim would stay in Upper Danubia past the end of her sentence?
Dukov's instincts told him he needed to dissuade his client from any romantic involvement with a Danubian. However, he also remembered what he had told Kim the first night she was at his house, that she had to live from day to day and enjoy the small daily pleasures of life. A romantic relationship certainly would help her get through the difficult times that lay ahead.
Dukov glanced over at the picture of himself and his future wife on the wall, the one in which they were naked and wearing collars. The Spokesman took his own collar off the wall and studied it, running his fingers over its groves and touching the broken latch. This piece of metal had been on his neck for five years. Like Sergekt, Dukov had worn this collar not so much because of anything he had done wrong himself, but because he had refused to betray his friends. The circumstances had been different, of course, but the Danubian definition of honor had remained intact over time...a definition shared by the Spokesman and by his client's young suitor.
Kim's suitor reminded Dukov so much of himself when he was young. He remembered the countless nights he had danced with Maritza at the Socrates club, just like Sergekt was doing with Kim...and the nights they sat at the tables of each other's families. There were the good times and the hard times...hard times, yes...very hard times. The relationship between Vladim and Maritza had survived through it all. They had been together 28 years.
Dukov's thoughts turned back to his client. Kim hardly fit the image of a proper Danubian woman, but she seemed to be moving in that direction. Two years...what would two years in Upper Danubia do to her? Maybe she was not destined to leave the country after all...
In the end Dukov decided not to say anything. Kim would sit at the table of Sergekt's mother, just as Sergekt would sit at the Dukovs' table.
When Kim went to Sergekt's house, Sergekt's mother and aunt were dressed in old-style Danubian dresses and the same elaborate dishes the Dukovs had prepared for Sergekt were on the dining room table waiting for Kim. However, Sergekt's mother greeted his new girlfriend with skepticism. An American who was not even of European descent, a convicted drug user, someone who could not express herself properly in Danubian...what on earth was he thinking? Kim faced a much more difficult task of sitting at Sergekt's table than he faced sitting at hers.
Kim sat uncomfortably while Sergekt's mother probed her with questions that she struggled to understand and answer. She resented being placed in this awkward position, but at the same time realized that Sergekt had to do the exact same thing for her. If she wanted to live in Upper Danubia and have friends, something she had no choice over for the next two years, she had to play by the rules of the country.
In the end Sergekt's mother warmed up just enough to allow Kim to continue coming over. It was not exactly an approval, but instead a withholding of judgment. In spite of all her deficiencies, "Geemberglek" seemed like a decent-enough girl, so Sergekt's mother did not feel justified telling her son she disapproved of her. To do so would be unfair and possibly cause problems for Sergekt and this strange foreign girlfriend of his. To condemn Criminal # 98945 also would have violated the Danubian idea that a person should never form a negative opinion about another person without a very specific reason.
That night Sergekt took Kim back to Dukov's house. Once again in the trolley they held onto each other. Once again she thrilled at the feel of his body next to hers. When he left her at the front door, he took her hands in his and looked at her with a question in his eyes. For some odd reason Kim decided to answer in English.
"You can kiss me, Sergekt."
Perhaps he did not understand her words, but he did understand her meaning. They kissed, slowly at first, then passionately. Eventually they forced themselves to stop. Kim squeezed Sergekt's hand and he was on his way home. In the US it would have been different; he would have come in and spent the night. Not in this country, and certainly not in Dukov's house. In Upper Danubia the pace of relationships, just like everything else in life, was much slower.
As the weeks passed Kim became a regular member of Sergekt's social group at the Socrates Club. They went to the club at least twice per week to drink Danubian beer, eat salted deep-fried vegetables, talk, and share their music and thoughts. Criminal # 98945 had found her place in this hostile country, the one spot where she felt she belonged. She chatted with the others and danced with her boyfriend. Increasingly they danced closer and closer, enjoying the feel of each other's bodies. Over time their souls became more and more connected. Over time Kim thought about Sergekt more and more when she was not with him.
In mid September Kim listened to "Nemát mi biciklét" performed live for the first time in the Socrates Club. When she heard to the song and understood the words, tears ran down her cheeks. The song and its sad message of not appreciating the good things of life until it was too late deeply moved not just Kim, but everyone who listened to it. Quickly it became popular throughout the entire criminal community and the club scene. Within a year the song was featured on Danubian radio. With a simple, heartfelt speech, Kim had left a lasting influence on Danubian popular culture.
The following week was the Autumn Equinox, and also the Danubian Day of the Dead. The holiday was the most important celebration in Upper Danubia, much more important than Christmas, New Year's Day, or even the birthday of Vladik the Defender, Upper Danubia's greatest king.
The Day of the Dead marked the end of the summer growing season and the country's long descent into darkness, cold, famine, and death. It had been celebrated in the same manner since Pagan times, and it remained very much a Pagan event. It was a dark, morbid holiday, designed to appease the dead spirits by letting them know that those still alive were all too aware of the fate that awaits all living things. It was the chance for the living to show their respect and to assure the dead spirits that they appreciated the fleeting gift of life. Once the country converted to Christianity in 900 AD, Catholic Saints were incorporated into the Day of the Dead, but the ceremony itself and its purpose were only slightly changed. Now that Christianity was on the wane in Upper Danubia as it was in the rest of Europe, the ceremony had almost completely returned to its Pagan roots.
On the day of the equinox all electrical power in Upper Danubia was shut off, with the sole exception of emergency services in hospitals. All battery-operated devices had to be shut off. All telecommunications had to be shut off. The borders were closed and no motorized vehicles could operate. The country became completely silent for 36 hours, from sun-down on September 21st to sun-up on the 23rd. The Dukovs observed the holiday by dressing in black capes, as did everyone else in the neighborhood.
Kim did not spend the Day of the Dead with Dukov's family. Kim was a criminal, and the Day of the Dead was the one day out of the year criminals had an honored place in Danube City. Criminals played a central role in the main ceremony and the collective request for atonement. Shortly before sun-down on the 21st, Kim, Sergekt, and every other criminal in Danube City rode trolleys downtown. The criminals gathered in the plaza in front of the Temple of the Ancients, joining about 900 additional people who were not criminals, but instead performing public penance. There were over 3,600 criminals and penitents altogether. They lined up in groups, where their organizers were waiting with white and black body-paint. Every criminal in the city would be painted, first white, then with black highlights. The make-up job had been done in the same manner for 3,000 years. It was primitive, but very effective. From a distance, the criminals looked ghoulish, half-way between cadavers and skeletons.
The marchers were all painted by the time it was dark. Kim was amazed at the effect of seeing 3,600 naked, painted bodies all gathered in one place. It actually did look kind of scary. Temple officials passed out 3,600 torches with over-the-shoulder torch slings and explained how to carry the torches to minimize the strain on the marchers' arms. The participants then divided into two groups and started filing out in opposite directions. They would circle the city that night and meet again on the opposite side of Danube City in the morning. The following night they would complete their march by returning to Temple of the Ancients through the city center. Kim later learned that part of the purpose of all this was to present the Spirits of the Dead with an opportunity to walk the earth again through the marchers, if they so chose.
The criminals marched all night in single file. The group that included Kim and Sergekt followed the trail upstream along the Danube River and finally turned right to head inland. They walked along dark country roads, their surroundings illuminated only by their own torches. All along the route ordinary citizens silently knelt in their black robes, apparently praying for forgiveness for whatever they had done wrong over the past year. Death seemed to hang in the air. Kim could feel it all around her, as though the dead spirits really had woken up.
Kim's eyes shifted back and forth from Sergekt's back to the kneeling crowds, as she tried to comprehend her own participation in this very strange ceremony. No one had asked her about doing this. It had just been taken for granted that Criminal # 98945 would participate along with all the others. She was a Danubian criminal and a member of Danubian society, whether she liked it or not. As such she had certain responsibilities.
Criminal # 98945 spent part of the night wondering about her forfeited life in the US. She would go back home in two years...probably. Suddenly she wasn't so sure. How could she return to her old life, after everything she had been through? Kim knew that she was changed. Less than three months into a two year sentence she had changed. Was it possible to change back? She thought so, but wasn't so confident about that anymore. This Day of the Dead, for example. Walking naked at night over silent country roads, covered with white and black body-paint, carrying a torch in front of thousands of kneeling Danubians...how on earth could she explain what she was doing to someone in the US without sounding like a total nut?
There were breaks in the marching about every two hours for going to the bathroom, exchanging torches, and drinking blackberry punch. The punch was dark red and stained the criminals' mouths. Some of the criminals, including Sergekt, allowed the punch to drip down their chests to give their body paint the appearance of being covered in blood.
Kim's group walked a half circle around the city. Shortly before sunrise she made out the torches from the other group as they came from the opposite direction. The distant line of torches and the white bodies underneath truly did look scary. The two lines converged on a campsite made up of military tents and bed-rolls. The criminals would sleep and relax during the day and after sunset resume the march back through Danube City to the Temple of the Ancients.
Kim and Sergekt slept holding hands. She woke up in mid-afternoon to absolute silence. Most of the others were still sleeping. Ceremonies were going on in the Plaza of the Ancients, but they were too far away to be heard from the campsite where the marchers were staying. Kim got up to go to the latrine, get something to drink, and get her body paint touched up. As she stepped outside the tent she was amazed at the absolute quiet surrounding her. An occasional bird chirping or insect flying by: that was it. It truly did seem like all life had stopped.
After it got dark there was a religious observance and group prayer for the marchers. Then the procession back into Danube City resumed. The two columns of criminals walked side-by-side along the city's main boulevard, their torches partially illuminating the spectators. Once again Kim felt death all around her. She began to get scared as strange ominous sensations swept through her body. Kim had no idea what was going on, but she had no choice but to continue walking. Finally the weird feelings passed, leaving her apprehensive and shaken.
As the criminals approached the Temple of the Ancients, they were greeted with ancient music and choir singing. Suddenly every church bell in the city started ringing. The kneeling spectators then stood up and joined the singing, in this weird mix of Pagan and Christian customs. The sudden noise after two nights of absolute silence somewhat unnerved Kim.
The marchers walked straight behind the old temple towards the Danube River. They threw their torches into a huge bonfire near the shore. To symbolize their return to the land of the living, the marchers walked out to a submerged stone platform in the river to clean off the body paint. Death was washed off, momentarily defeated. The criminals then filed back through the Temple of the Ancients and back out onto the plaza. As the sun came up they sang an ancient hymn and then dispersed.
Kim and Sergekt walked silently with some of his friends, all of them lost in thought as Danube City slowly came back to life. They made their way back to the Socrates Club to wash off properly, have breakfast, and then go to the Central Police Station.
The day after the equinox was the day that the police handed out winter clothing for the city's criminals. Criminal # 98945 was a bit surprised and somewhat relieved at the news that yes, even criminals wore clothing during the winter. She had wondered about that, with winter coming up. When Sergekt saw that his girlfriend seemed happy about the winter outfits he commented in Danubian.
"Kim, when you see what that outfit actually looks like, you won't want to put it on unless it's absolutely freezing outside. They do that on purpose, giving you something that no one in his right mind would want to wear."
Along with the others, Criminal # 98945 picked up a garment bag and a set of bright orange boots. Bright orange boots. That was not a good sign. Sure enough, when she opened her garment bag she pulled out the most hideous piece of clothing she had ever laid eyes on. It was a bright orange top that looked something half-way between an army poncho and a cape. It had a hood and a sewn-in wool shirt underneath. There was a yellow stripe running up the middle of the cape and blue reflective strips sewn around the edges. There were several drawstrings to tighten the hood and waist. On the back was a large patch of Velcro.
"You need to pick up your criminal number from Spokesman Dukov and keep it attached...that is, IF you want to wear this. They'll let you wear the boots without the cape during the winter...which is what I did last year during the day. If you keep your feet warm and stay moving when you're outdoors it's not so bad. Not bad enough to wear this."
Kim agreed. Better to stay naked than wear a bright orange cape with a yellow stripe and blue reflectors, but at least she did have something to put on during cold snaps.
When Criminal # 98945 went to Dukov's office to pick up the Velcro patch with her number, he seemed in a very serious mood. She hoped that it was not over something that had anything to do with her, but unfortunately it was.
"Kimberly...please sit down. I need to talk to you about...a very unfortunate event."
"Spokesman? Did I do something wrong?"
"No, Kimberly, nothing like that. You have committed no transgressions. But...where to begin...I will tell you that I have taken the liberty of staying in contact with your parents in the United States. I believe that it was my obligation to make sure they understood your situation. I even sent them pictures of my house, my family, and your room, so they could see and understand...and perhaps not be so worried about you."
"Did that cause a problem?"
"No Kimberly. No problems. But the same afternoon you had to go to the Plaza of the Ancients I received a very bad piece of news from your mother, which she instructed I should relay to you at an appropriate moment. It is the obituary of your friend Susan."
"Yes. I will let you read it, and then I will inform you about the rest of what I found out."
With that Dukov handed his client a cut-out piece of newspaper from her hometown in the US. She read:
"Tyrone and Debbie Taylor announce the commemoration and celebration of the life of their daughter, Susan Taylor, at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, July 19 at the Eastwood Baptist Church. Funeral services will be held Sunday, July 20 at the Eastwood Public Cemetery. Susan passed away unexpectedly on July 12, while vacationing in Prague, the Czech Republic. She is survived by her parents and brother. We all love you Susan. We love you so much."
Kim sat silently, absorbing this horrible new shock. "Susan...my God. But...how?"
"I called the American embassy in Prague, but of course that was foolish of me. They refused to tell me anything. So I called a colleague I have there, and he made some calls to the coroner's office and hospitals. It turned out Susan died of hepatitis. I also determined that your friend Tiffany contracted hepatitis, but she survived and returned to America."
"Hepatitis...but...how'd they get that? Where'd it come from?"
"They were sharing a needle at a night club. Two young Czech men who were with them contracted hepatitis as well. One died, the other survived."