The Courier Ch. 06bycaligula97236©
Chapter 6 -- Nothing to be proud of
Cecilia was awake as soon as it started to get light outside. She started breakfast for the household, roused her nephew to force him to get ready for school, and finally laid out a pressed shirt and suit for Victor Dukov. Up until late April, most of those tasks had been handled by Mrs. Dukov. Cecilia took over the household responsibilities shortly after the cancer diagnosis and had been in complete charge of the house since May.
As Cecilia pulled a stack of dishes out of the cupboard and started distributing them around the dining room table, it suddenly occurred to her that Maria Elena, if she remained in Victor's house, could take over most of the housework. The idea made sense, because it would automatically give the Colombian a place to live and right away make her a useful member of the household. More importantly, having Maria Elena take over the chores would free Cecilia to concentrate on her own responsibilities at the university. She felt that she owed it to the Dukovs to help out when Mrs. Dukov became sick, but she had no intention of taking care of the house more than a few weeks. Four months had gone by and there was no sign that Victor was ready to assume any of the household responsibilities, or any sign that anyone else was about to come in and relieve Cecilia. Now, possibly, she had stumbled across a solution to her problem.
Cecilia woke up Maria Elena and ordered her to join her in the kitchen. She continued to cook, but told the Colombian to start taking food to the dining room and to clean the pans. That freed up Cecilia to push her nephew to get ready for school and to check his homework. She then checked on Victor, who was close to being ready to go downstairs. Ordinarily Cecilia would have started making his bed, but she realized that she could have Maria Elena do that. Yes, she thought to herself, Prisoner # 101025 is gonna earn her keep from day one.
Once the table was set, the Colombian stood quietly, not sure whether to sit down or not. Cecilia made sure that Victor, as the head of the household, was properly seated before Pedro could sit down. Then she addressed Maria Elena:
"Kneel. Once Victor gives you permission to join us, you'll need to thank him and you can take a seat."
Once Maria Elena and Cecilia sat down and started eating, Cecilia explained:
"You'll have to kneel before each meal, 'cause you're a criminal. It's not just you; Jason has to do the same thing when he comes over. It's not so bad, because Victor is at least letting you sit at his table, which is a favor in this country. In a lot of households criminals have to eat in the kitchen because of the shame they've brought upon everyone else. There's a lot of parents who won't even allow their kid to sit on any of their furniture if he's collared. He has to eat standing up and kneel if he's talking to anyone. Victor won't make you do that unless he's pissed at you."
Cecilia briefly talked to Victor in Danubian to present her idea of having the detainee permanently stay at the house in exchange for helping out with the chores. He was much more receptive to the proposal than Cecilia had anticipated, which meant that the only person she still had to convince was Kim. If the Spokeswoman agreed, then Cecilia would simply tell Maria Elena about the arrangement and she would be expected to comply.
However, as she considered the prisoner's situation, she decided that she did at least owe her an explanation. She asked Victor to take Pedro to the school bus stop while she and the prisoner would remain behind to clean up from breakfast. Once the kitchen was clean, she ordered Maria Elena to sit down in the living room so she could braid her hair. Since properly braiding her companion's hair would take about 30 minutes, Cecilia used that opportunity to explain the plan of having her live with Victor Dukov permanently.
"There's a couple of things I'm worried about. First of all, I've got my classes, my fiancé, my nephew, and 60 exchange students to deal with, and I'm not doing any of that very well because I'm having to take care of Victor. I owe him a lot, but I also have my other responsibilities and I need some help. Also, because of your language problem, you'd have to stay here for a couple of months anyway, so I figure we can make that permanent from the outset. That way you won't have to worry about where you're gonna live, because that'll be taken care of. So, we've got a solution to several problems. Does that make sense?"
"Now, you're not here to relax. You're here to help me and Victor, and you're here to do what I tell you. Eventually you'll know what needs to be done, and I'll expect you to do it automatically. Victor's OK with the idea, so the only person I need to talk to is your Spokeswoman. I don't know if she has any other ideas about where you should live, but if I have my way, you're staying here."
With that Cecilia told Maria Elena to stand up and look at herself in the mirror. The prisoner looked very different with her hair tightly braided. She did not like her appearance at all. Cecilia picked up on her disapproving expression:
"You're in Danubia. This is they way women keep their hair. A lot of those strange looks you got yesterday had nothing to do with the fact that you were naked or collared, it was because of your hair. Women just don't have loose hair in this country. That's something that actually they've gotten stricter about over the last couple of years, I think because they don't like the foreign tourists coming in with their hair flying all around."
Cecilia grabbed two large sacks of books and student papers to take to the university. She handed the heavier one to Maria Elena and the two women exited the house. They walked several blocks along tree-lined streets before entering the main campus of the National University. Because classes had not yet started, the university was largely empty, with the exception of grounds-keepers and several groups of students who were exercising.
The prisoner was shocked to see that the majority of the people on campus were naked. Cecilia explained that exercise was normally done in the nude, since swimwear and most athletic clothing were prohibited by law. The students who were running wore shoes and nothing else. As for the grounds-keepers, most of the older employees were dressed wearing nothing but knee-pads, aprons, and wide-brim hats, while several collared criminals working under their direction were as naked as Maria Elena. This was one weird country: they made such a big deal about braided hair, but no one cared about public nudity.
Cecilia noticed the gardeners and commented: "This might not be a bad job for you, working in the garden at the university. It's right next to where you live, it would fulfill the work requirements of you being out in the open, and wouldn't require much language. I don't think your Spokeswoman thought about this as an option. I'll suggest it when we see her."
Maria Elena said nothing, but inwardly cringed. Digging in the dirt with her hands? Certainly that was beneath her; she wasn't a peasant, after-all.
Cecilia led her companion to the exchange program office to drop off the books. She then told Maria Elena to follow her to a professor's office to introduce her and request that she be added to the exchange program's Danubian language training group. Cecilia ordered the prisoner to kneel during the introduction, but then told her to stand up. The professor and the program coordinator talked briefly before she turned to Maria Elena:
"OK, you're in luck. The professor's gonna add you to the program. To make sure you're not totally lost in class this afternoon, right now he's gonna give you the basics of Danubian and teach you the alphabet. I need to meet with some of my students anyway, so I'll just leave you here."
For the next two hours Maria Elena received a very intense class in Danubian language training. The professor grilled her on the alphabet and taught her some fundamental phrases and questions that she needed to know for simple survival. She learned numbers and how to say her legal name in Danubian, she learned how to ask for permission for basic needs such as going to the bathroom, and she learned greetings appropriate for a criminal. Finally the instructor gave her a study guide from the class and ordered her to review it until Cecilia returned.
Twenty-four hours had passed since Maria Elena had been arrested, but already her new life was beginning to take shape. She had a place to live, she knew what her legal situation would be, and she had learned a few words and phrases needed to exist in the country that held her captive. She understood that there would be no transition for her. She already was considered a criminal and as such, had her established place in Danubian society. No one considered her as Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres, the Colombian detainee. To the Danubians she was Prisoner # 101025, property of the Danubian Republic. The people around her would assist her as much as they could, but only to help her understand and assume her duties as a criminal. No one was interested in helping her regain her freedom or return to her old life.
Three hours after she departed, Cecilia Sanchez returned to pick up her prisoner and escort her downtown to the Central Police Station. Cecilia explained that within a few days Maria Elena would be expected to make the trip by herself, pointing out which trolley routes she needed to know to travel downtown and to return to the university:
"Downtown's pretty hard to miss. It's got a huge wall around it and if you get lost; just look for the cathedral."
Maria Elena noticed that with her hair properly braided, she did indeed draw less attention than she did the previous day. Of course, most of the men at least noticed her, but their glances were not much more than she got in Pereira when she wore her favorite mini-skirt. On interesting difference was that the men who looked at her were much better behaved than many of the younger men in her home country. There were no remarks, whistles, or cat-calls, because the Danubians considered such behavior dishonorable. The men were free to look, but whatever thoughts they had about the naked prisoner they kept to themselves.
When Cecilia escorted Maria Elena to Kim's office, Criminal # 98946 was waiting in the reception area to let them in. The Spokeswoman invited her assistant and her two guests to have tea with her in the back office. Cecilia reminded Maria Elena that it ultimately was Kim who was her mentor and it was with Kim that she would have to work out the details of her future life as a criminal.
Cecilia conversed with the Spokeswoman in English, explaining her idea of having Maria Elena stay with Victor Dukov permanently and possibly request work at the university as a groundskeeper. Kim seemed very satisfied that her prisoner already had received her first class in Danubian. She asked what Maria Elena thought of Victor. When Maria Elena answered honestly that she wasn't sure what she thought of him, Kim responded:
"Did you know that I used to work for him?"
"Yes, Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna, he told me last night. He also said that you were one of his favorite employees."
Kim turned her head slightly. She tapped her neck and glanced at Cecilia, who shook her head.
"Did you know that when I worked for him, I was a criminal?"
When Maria Elena heard the translation, she wasn't sure she had understood correctly. Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna...a criminal?
The Spokeswoman called her attention to a tapestry hanging on the wall behind her desk. She took it down, revealing several objects from her own past. There was a brightly-colored t-shirt with a marijuana leaf on the front, a criminal's collar with a broken latch, and a small picture of herself with the following inscription:
"Zék nom. 98945 - Kimberly Lee -- USA"
Maria Elena studied the portrait on the mugshot. The image must have been taken about seven years before, when Kimberly Lee was only 18 years old. Her hair was very short and her expression reflected pure terror and bewilderment, a total contrast with how she currently looked, sitting confidently at her desk.
"For two years, my name was Criminal # 98945. I served a two-year sentence for smoking marijuana behind the Temple of the Ancients. For two years I wore this collar you see hanging on my wall and I wore nothing else. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I...y...yes...Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna...I understand..."
I am telling you this, because I want you to understand that I had to endure some of what you will have to endure. You have no right to assume that I really don't know what you are going through, because I was there myself. Seven years ago, I sat in that same chair where you're sitting, the very same chair. Just like you, I sat naked on a towel, because as a prisoner I was forbidden to wear clothing. And just like you, I went on trial and was punished. I know how you feel right now, because everything you are feeling I felt myself. Do you understand me?"
After listening to Cecilia's translation, Maria Elena managed to respond:
"Dóc-doc, Advodkátna Lee-Dolkivna."
"When I told you yesterday that the Path of my Life was to serve as your custodian and your mentor, I actually meant that. I have a Path in Life, which was laid out by the Creator before I ever set foot in Danubia. That is why I was arrested and that is why I served a two-year sentence. You will understand that you too, have a Path in Life, a path that brought us together."
Maria Elena face was blank, because she had no clue how she should respond. The Spokeswoman continued:
"I am telling you this, because I don't want you to assume your life has ended just because you were arrested. It hasn't. Your life has changed, but it hasn't ended. Nor has your life been suspended. You will lead your life day by day, and your duty to the Creator, to everyone around you, and to yourself, is to make the best out of it. And those words are not mine. They were from my own Spokesman, something he told me the second day of my sentence."
Maria Elena was silent. Finally she was able to respond with a question: "So...Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna...I was wondering...what's gonna happen to me? My life...the one you're talking about...what is my life gonna be like?"
"You're screwed legally, and I'm telling you that up front. You'll probably be wearing a collar for 55 years, like the arraignment committee told you. So, you'll live out the rest of your life just like you are now. No clothes, no makeup, no jewelry. No drinking, no drugs. Your purpose will be to serve society and those around you. You will lead a demanding life, but you will also always understand what is expected of you. No one will lie to you, and you won't lie either, because you won't have any reason to lie. At some point you'll come to terms with what happened, and when you do, you'll learn to speak Danubian, make new friends, and probably fall in love with someone. Then the years will go by and you'll get older, just like everyone else. That will be the Path of your Life, as they say here."
"The Path of my Life..."
"The Path of your Life...you will understand...just like Criminal # 98946...just like me...just like all of my other clients."
Maria Elena's thoughts returned to her conversation with Cecilia, and the possibility that she might have been double-crossed and murdered had she completed her trip to Germany. Her mind was full of doubt...was she extraordinarily lucky, or unlucky? What really awaited her in Frankfurt...la plata or el plomo?
The Spokeswoman did not give her client much time to reflect, because there still were several issues that she needed to resolve, the most important of which was making sure she was gainfully employed. Cecilia immediately brought up the idea of having Maria Elena work as a gardener at the university.
"Yes, that's better than anything I was able to think of. The best thing would've been for her to work for Victor, but since she can't ride a bicycle, I guess the university is her best option. I'll call over there and see if they need anyone."
Kim picked up the phone while Cecilia told Maria Elena what had been decided. It was obvious that she was not at all happy with the prospect of being a gardener. Cecilia responded:
"What's wrong with being a gardener?"
Maria Elena couldn't express what she was thinking, but what bothered her was the idea of ruining her hands. Even two days after being arrested, her manicured fingernails were intact, the final link to a former life that allowed her to worry about her appearance. At any other time in her life she would have dreaded getting her hands dirty, but in Danubia that fear was even stronger, because it was her last shred of personal vanity, one that she had hoped to preserve.
"Please...can't it be anything else?"
"Yes, it can. You can change jobs after you learn to speak Danubian. But right now you can't communicate, which limits what you can do. If you don't like gardening, then that'll be an incentive to do well in language class."
Maria Elena paused, desperately trying to think of an argument that would get her out of the gardening job. Meanwhile, Kim put her hand over the phone's receiver and asked Cecilia in English:
"What's the language class schedule for your students?"
"13:00 to 16:00, Monday through Saturday. In the mornings they go out on city tours."
"What about P.E.?
"16:30 to 17:30."
"Do they want her to participate in that?"
"Yes, to be in the language program, she's gonna have to participate."
"OK, then I'll have her work from 9:00 to 12:00. I'll have to petition the Ministry to get it approved, because that's a reduced schedule. I want her to learn Danubian and, for the moment, that takes priority over working. Also, you can tell her that if she's getting a reduced work schedule, she'd better bust her ass at night for you and Victor. You tell her I'm doing her a favor."
Cecilia translated, adding that she wanted Maria Elena to thank her Spokeswoman. The prisoner did not look happy at all. Cecilia became irritated:
"What's your problem? That's a huge break for you! You're only gonna have to work three hours a day! I wish I could work just three hours a day! Now, you get on your knees and you thank her!"
Reluctantly the Maria Elena did as she was told, repeating a phrase she had learned that morning:
"Spakéebo dék mene."
Once the prisoner was on her knees with her hands resting on her thighs, Cecilia realized why she was so reluctant. She had beautifully manicured fingernails. Obviously that would change the moment Maria Elena's hands went into the dirt. Well, that was just too bad, because Danubian women (even ones that held professional jobs) didn't let their fingernails grow out or wear nail polish. One more thing for her to get adjusted to...
Criminal # 98946 stuck her head in the door to let Kim know that the police had just brought in a new detainee. It was obvious her time with Prisoner # 101025 had ended, because now she had to deal with her newest client. As the women exited the back office, they saw a cop standing over a very depressed young man. He was completely naked and was kneeling with his hands cuffed behind his back. Unlike Maria Elena, whose detention had not really been normal, the young man had been photographed and assigned a criminal number right after being arrested. After exchanging salutes with Kim, the cop handed over the client's paperwork and introduced him as Prisoner # 101098.
Cecilia commented in Spanish:
"We need to go. Kneel and say good-bye."
Once they had exited the Central Police Station, Cecilia addressed Maria Elena's fingernail problem, explaining that painted fingernails were similar to unbraided hair in Danubia; something foreign and not considered appropriate. "...in a way it makes sense because, look at yourself, for example. Here you have this really great work schedule and all you can think about is ruining your nails. Don't think I can't sympathize with you because I do. You take a look at my pictures before I came here, and you'll see I liked bright red lipstick and bright red nail polish...and they always had to match. I was thinking about that all the time...but once I came here I had to give it up."