‘After the New Dawn’, Joseph Tomaras

Illustrations © 2015 Eric Asaris

 [ New Dawn, © 2015 Eric Asaris ] The man in the picture-screen on the wall, Mama and Papa called him the Guide, except when he came to visit our house, and then they called him Yannis. Papa’s name was also Yannis. Mama said I am to call Papa Papa and call the man in the picture the Guide, and then I won’t be confused. I don’t like to call him anything, but Mama said this is not good either.

The man in the picture-screen and the man who came to visit had the same face, but they did not look like the same person. The man in the screen never smiles. The man who came to visit smiled in his eyes and under his moustache. His moustache looked like a hedgehog. The moustache in the picture looks like a helmet over his mouth. Mama and Papa said I am never to say this.

There are many things I cannot say anymore. New Mama says I must remember who to call Mama and Papa, that the man and the woman I used to call those things are not people. Maybe they are ghosts, or gods, or monsters, or robots. I don’t think robots would feel warm when they hugged me good night, or ghosts, and gods are enormous. Maybe monsters, but good monsters. That must make me a good monster. Maybe we are all monsters, good monsters and bad monsters, pretending to be people, and the real people are hiding from the bad monsters by pretending to be monsters.

Is the Guide a person or a monster? Maybe there are a person and a monster who share that face, and the picture is of the monster. This makes sense to me, but it is something else I must not say.

So I will tell a story about the monsters I used to call Mama and Papa. I will call them Woman-Monster and Man-Monster. And the Guide-Person with his hedgehog moustache.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Maria who lived with a Man-Monster and a Woman-Monster who she called Papa and Mama. The Woman-Monster was kind and soft except when she read the newspaper. Then her eyes would turn quickly from left to right, searching for names that she knew, and she would send Maria to her room whenever her eyes began to water. The Man-Monster was patient and good at teaching, except on the days when he would come home from work sweating, with his eyes burrowed under his brows like a rabbit hiding in the bushes. Then he would send Maria to her room and speak to the Woman-Monster like a schoolteacher, and the Woman-Monster would speak like the greengrocer’s wife, or they would not speak at all, and the cook who was also named Maria would sweep up what was left behind.

In her room, Maria would sharpen her pencils and draw pictures and write stories to go with the pictures. Mostly pictures of centaurs and dryads. The dryads were as beautiful as the Woman-Monster, but with leaves for hair and branches for arms and breasts that looked like peaches. Dryads only wore clothes when they came to the market and pretended to be poor women selling nettles to other poor women. The centaurs looked like the Man-Monster did on the days when he did not shave, but with no glasses and straight backs and horse bodies, of course. The centaurs could never be seen except by goats and lost children.

One day a man came to visit. He had a moustache that looked like a hedgehog which Maria was not supposed to say and short hair that bristled like a pine tree. He had come to visit before. Whenever he would come to visit, he would look for Maria even if she was in her room and say, “My little doll! My beautiful little girl!”, even though she was not his at all. He would say this in a way that made Maria think that he said this to every little girl he ever met. Then he would sing, The rabbit goes to drink water, running his fingers along her belly and up her chest, and finish, and finds it on the neck, tickling her neck, shoulders and armpits. The song made no sense—who ever heard of water on a neck, except maybe sweat on a peasant woman digging on a hot day?—but it rhymed in her language. Maria giggled every time, and hated the man with a hedgehog moustache for making her giggle. Then he would take her hand and bring her to the room where the Man-Monster and Woman-Monster had put out cookies, jellies and baklava, with coffee for Monsters and the Guide-Person and milk for Maria. He would bellow “Yanni!”, and the Man-Monster would reply only slightly less loudly, “How good of you to join us, Your Excellency!”, and the Guide-Person would insist on being called Yannis and praise the Woman-Monster for the sweets as if she had made them, calling her Alexandra in a way that made the Man-Monster wince, and they would speak of the weather and the sea and of recent weddings and baptisms but never funerals, until the Guide-Person would say, “This is very delightful conversation, but of course it is not why I am here,” and the Man-Monster would reply, “Of course, Yanni,” and the Woman-Monster would venture that “Perhaps we should send Maria to her room,” knowing that the Guide-Person would say, “No, no, a delightful little girl helps calm my mind,” and seat Maria on his lap and continue, “and an intelligent little girl needs to understand how our nation is restoring itself to greatness!”

This was all as it had been every time. The word “greatness” meant that grown-up talk was coming, so Maria would stop listening and begin thinking of dryads, and how dryads could turn themselves into trees if they did not like how their legs were being touched, and how you should never drill holes into trees even if you are building a treehouse because it could be a dryad hiding and she would be hurt.

What was not as it had always been was that her name was spoken again during the grown-up talk, which interrupted her thoughts. It was the Guide-Person who spoke it first: “Naturally, before this assignment begins you will need to set your affairs in order. I personally promise to you that I will take little Maria’s education in hand, as I have for so many other children of our leading echelons when their parents are called upon to sacrifice for state affairs.”

“But…” began the Woman-Monster, and the Man-Monster interrupted her.

“I assume then that this assignment will be arduous.”

“No more arduous than our nation’s sufferings in the centuries before the New Dawn. Vigilance against subversion is the price we must pay for resurgence.”

“What if we refuse?” asked the Woman-Monster, speaking too fast to be interrupted.

The Guide-Person removed Maria from his lap and set her on the empty chair, leaned forward toward the Man-Monster, and said, “My friend, you need to do a better job of cleansing your household of the poison of feminism. Explain to your woman when she is and is not to open her mouth, or shut it for her. And make clear to her, since I seem not to have succeeded, that this assignment is not voluntary. It would be better for all of us if you began your preparations today. Whether you do or not, my men in the Special Service will be here this time next week to help you on your way. If they find you to be inadequately prepared, then they may have to reorder matters, put you to work on something less… glorious. Understand?”

“I understand, Your Excellency,” said the Man-Monster, his head bowed.

 [ Men in the mountains, women in the forests, © 2015 Eric Asaris ] The Guide-Person left the house, and the Woman-Monster began screeching. “Don’t you see what is happening? How many of our friends who got ‘reassigned’ have we ever seen again? That man is paranoid, he must…” At that moment Maria saw something she had never seen before: The Man-Monster punched the Woman-Monster in the face. She fell onto the couch, wiped the blood from her mouth with a napkin, and threw a coffee cup at the Man-Monster. It missed. The Man-Monster screamed some words Maria did not recognize—”Morí putána!”—then grabbed a serving tray and began beating her about the head until she stopped moving. Then he began to cry and scream, “Alexandra! No, don’t! What have I done? This can’t be!”

The men in black suits came for Maria later that day. They muttered something about having to make last-minute arrangements and the disorderly lives of the higher-ups. Maria never saw the Person-Guide again, only the Guide-Monster in the picture-screens.

New Mama tried to “chase the devil out of that child” with a wooden spoon at least once a night, and New Papa had regular lessons for each of the girls in the house on “their future duties to the Fatherland.” But sometimes she heard New Papa grumbling about men in the mountains and women in the forests, and she knew: The centaurs and dryads were coming, to save her.

© 2015 Joseph Tomaras

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