"The Dictator" by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
(Photo credit: Getty Images)
The Dictator eyes the men convened in the room: his compatriots, all potential traitors conspiring to destroy the Empire he’d spent a lifetime building. Everyone smokes, including the Dictator, whose long massive pipe, clenched between his lips, serves at once as an extension of his power and an affirmation of his will. Both have been unquestionable thus far. Yet, there are rumors, rumors that his sexual appetites affect his rule. The need to curb the tyranny, to curtail the street riots, to appease the mob, which can’t be pitied but must be subdued. The Dictator conjures his predecessor, who was forced to abdicate the office, his family kidnapped and tortured, his beautiful daughters sold to brothels. They had such fine skin, delicate bodies, breasts.
The smoke from the Dictator’s pipe coils, drifting, mixing with that of the men, who advise and admonish him. Some of the men he can’t see well enough, their silhouettes barely delineated at the far end of the table, shrouded in smoke. The discussion revolves around the recent attack on one of the army bases up north and the impending war. The General, a portly man of a bruised nature, opposes the invasion of another state with an equal or a possibly exceeding nuclear capacity. Weak strategy, grave consequences. He’s seen it happen before—a false premise aggrandized by greed. The war will be met with heavy opposition, prompt massacres. But who is he to say? A humble man, a servant to his country, one of many. Indeed. He would betray the Dictator first, that craven, pusillanimous creature. They grew up together, fought street wars, slept with the same women, and even looked alike in their younger years, until the General let himself go. He drank and ate beyond salvation and lost an eye in a brawl. He wears a black patch and must turn his head each time someone else joins the conversation, his remaining eye aimed at the speaker.
The Dictator has developed a headache. He has difficulty focusing, the General’s patch too much of a distraction. Should there be a war? Could he win it? How much will it cost him? Casualties are of no concern—he has millions to spare and black gold to sustain the Empire’s wealth. But he’s no impotent sociopath, like his predecessor or others before him. He has no desire to dominate the world, to control the uncontrollable. He enjoys life, its transience, its bliss. The exuberant luxuries of virgin flesh. Perhaps too much. Serious complaints have ensued. Mothers won’t let their young daughters out on the streets. They fear for their children’s safety; they demand protection, a hard promise. The Dictator scoffs, but his gesture is swallowed by the lush mustache he keeps twirling with his free hand. He has no patience with female whining. He cannot promise anything to anyone, the fate of a few individuals is of no concern to the State. And why should such demands even be voiced? Is it not his State? Are they not his people? His girls? He could do whatever. Kiss them or slap them. Or bury them alive.
The Minister of Overseas Affairs is now addressing the crowd, a war advocate at his disdainful best. The Minister’s voice is high-pitched and unnerving, and for a moment, the Dictator’s headache is droned out, muffled; he’s distracted by the man’s urgent tone and lofty words—of national courage and pride, a call to assert justice in a world of bigotry and political espionage. Avarice and ambition, the desire to conquer and dominate, to strike first. The Dictator releases a cloud of smoke in the Minister’s face. The distance between the two is that of a dagger blade. The Minister is an importunate rodent, whose gut and wallet are filled with the Dictator’s riches, his crops. Years ago, the Minister slept with the Dictator’s wife, inciting her—no doubt— to poison her husband or fake an accident so he, the Minister, could become the Dictator. As a punishment to both and a warning to others, the Dictator chose to deploy the ancient ritual of genital mutilation.
The Dictator bites on his pipe, his headache a throbbing knuckle against his temple. The war will compromise his safety. His family will become a target, maybe not his wife, but his daughters, who have refused to marry the General’s sons. Strong-willed and petulant like the Dictator himself, maudlin and nearsighted like their mother. Why did he bother educating them? Sending them to foreign schools, where they’d picked up smoking and dieting? Once plump and healthy, blessed with curvatures of flesh, they now resemble barren trees with their swaying hair and unclothed arms. They have succumbed to aging and irrevocable knowledge, their minds burdened with doubt. Who will marry them now? Who will protect them when he’s gone? No man in this room, nor anyone outside it. They’ll end up in brothels or priories, those filthy, cunt-licking colonies. The Dictator attempts to shrug off his gloom, relights his pipe. A cloud of smoke quivers and sails over the table, where the hunched men are sipping cognac from heavy crystal. They resemble gluttonous toads with their bulged eyes on meaty glistening faces.
Spurred by the liquor, the Scientist is now arguing with the National Security Advisor against testing the newly devised chemical weapon on rebels captured after the attack on the north base. Science serves humanity. The weapon should only be introduced as a means of self-defense when other, more customary methods have failed. The Advisor spurns his lover’s circumlocutions. The weapons are not to torture the few unfortunate, but to frighten the remainder of the living, to restore the balance of power, which might’ve been recently compromised. The security, the wellbeing of the Empire, is at stake. Don’t underestimate the adversaries, their ever-present urge to sabotage, to ensnare, to demolish.
The boldness of the Advisor’s statement confronts the Scientist, just as his erect body does at night—no doubt—demanding satisfaction and gratitude. It’s painful for the Dictator to envision the two in bed, lavishing caresses, a hairy entanglement of legs and arms. What pleasure could they possibly draw from such crude exchanges? What power? And yet, to the best of the Dictator’s knowledge, they’ve been faithful, sought no excuses or distractions. Their camaraderie, their loyalty is an envy for the others. In the event of a coup, both men would offer a trustworthy hand, provide a hideout, as long as the Dictator sanctions gay rights and legalizes same-sex marriages. No, that is not a possibility because such laws will sever his ties with the Church.
More cognac is passed around, more cigars. The natural light has all but completely withdrawn from the room, which is now submerged in smoke as though in a fog. The wallpaper has one of those gaudy patterns confusing to the eye. It irritates the Dictator. When he follows the curvy entwined lines for a while, the everlasting pattern changes shapes. Its vines coalesce and waver like bloody arms. The color fades in patches, from incarnadine orange to bleeding rust. The Dictator’s headache flares and pulsates, presses on his eyes. He recalls a description of the new chemical weapon that permanently blinds the victims. A delicious thought passes through his head, but he swats at it before the full vision has a chance to materialize, acquire shape and consequences. He cannot blind all of his countrymen. Their eyes oversee his occasional blindness, his right to forget or turn silent.
The Dictator rubs his temples, then squeezes them hard. He laments the absence of women in the room. They have the ability to relieve tension, provide a welcoming distraction. Somewhere, not too far in the distance, the Doctor rises from his chair and bows, waiting for the permission to approach. As the Doctor walks, he stoops lower. Humility and age cushion his circumspect steps. In the cup of his hand he holds a plastic capsule, inside of which something is moving, something tiny, inconspicuous yet virile. The Doctor piques the Dictator—these clean, dry hands, that calm face. What secrets does such a face harbor, what truths? The Doctor lost his family in a house fire and hasn’t spoken a word since. The Dictator had no reason to burn the Doctor’s home, and yet, he could never shake the suspicion that the Doctor might still believe otherwise. The Dictator respects the Doctor’s silence, nonetheless, his loyalty uncompromised in all the years. The Dictator places the miracle pill in his mouth, and the Doctor retrieves his arm; the obliged bow of his head a signal for others to continue.
The argument is now in the hands of the Church Master, who’s garbed in long black vestments with the gold-stitched embroidery on the sleeves and around the neck. Perhaps it represents a man’s world and how it functions: a few glittering threads of success amidst total darkness. As always, the Church Master advocates forgiveness, pledging eternal life and God’s mercy. He’s a sly, narrow-jawed man who’s here to collect more money and promote his latest book, On the Divine Order of the Universe. He passes copies to the men, who abandon their cigars reluctantly, pushing away their drinks. The Dictator loathes superstition and any talk of things that cannot be felt or seen or supported by numerical data. As the men finger the compilations of glossy pages, the Church Master speaks about providence and God’s message revealed gradually to each man and reflected in his actions. Purpose defines prophesy. A war is never a preferred solution, but sometimes violence is the only means of communication. Human sacrifice—a gracious offering. All must pray.
The Church Master’s words bounce off the side of the Dictator’s skull like tennis balls. While the men’s eyes are closed, his are wide open, evoking, bringing into full view the two adolescent girls swinging their shiny rackets in one of the city’s better neighborhoods. The sun gilded their bodies and hair, so blond and long, brushing against their buttocks outlined by tight elastic shorts. The Dictator feels aroused as he begins to disrobe the girls, imagines them naked, bending down to catch the yellow balls, jumping and lunging to hit them back and forth, back and forth.
His headache has curtailed, thanks to the Doctor, but the Dictator’s eyes are leaden; they seem out of focus. He hears buzzing in both ears and shakes his head until his sight sharpens and the noise dissipates. He won’t subsidize the Church Master, his pious books or fake chivalry or incessant journeys overseas, where he conspires with other devotees, God’s so-called vassals, who could and would, one day, join forces and erect their own empire, usurping the one that belongs to him. The Holy Council won’t grant him immortality or protect him from all the vultures, their foul, carrion-packed beaks.
The Dictator’s pipe is cold, and he pulls it out of his mouth, ignoring the Church Master and his cigar-offering hand. He attempts to stand up but sinks under the weight of his own shoulders. His eyes twitch and burn, unprotected, as though his eyelids have been shaved off.
Not without difficulty, he accepts the cognac from the Prophet, one of the two men who hasn’t yet spoken.
The Prophet is the same age as the Dictator, but one would never assume such a thing by looking at the two. The Dictator is a short brawny man, with a thick mustache and a full head of silver hair while the Prophet is tall and bulky, with a bald head and a face like a wrinkled handkerchief. His white beard reaches to his chest, and he combs it with his spindly fingers, all of which are missing nails. The Prophet is pensive at the moment, waiting for the Dictator to finish his drink before examining his hand, the imprint of the Dictator’s fate. The Prophet is powerless to change that fate or break the spell that seems to have descended upon the Dictator’s eyes. He’s lost his peripheral vision and has difficulty recognizing the Prophet’s face. The room tilts and swells with shadows that corrugate the walls. The Prophet’s lips hover close, his hot tongue sweeps at the Dictator’s ear, imploring him to confess, to give up the girls’ bodies, to thwart the war.
The Dictator swallows a balloon of air, which is viscous and bitter. He considers none of it his fault. He couldn’t have known right away that the tennis players were the daughters of a foreign Diplomat. Although he could’ve guessed: they spoke with an accent and behaved as though they’d been affronted by his touch. Such mean, vicious cats. They clawed, they bit, they soiled the Dictator’s silken sheets. He had to make them stop. The Diplomat and the other governments are indignant; they demand the girls be returned to their parents, alive or dead. But that is not possible, and the Dictator regrets it. The war may not mollify the adversaries, but it may distract his men and the others, the communal grief outweighing the personal. The Dictator attempts to slam his fist against the table but is unable to loosen the Prophet’s fingers circling his wrist. His body—a prehistoric animal, an ailing predator soon to shrivel, fossilize.
The final word belongs to the Writer, who’s tall and loud, unwavering in his indignation. Born in the labor camps, he saw and felt torture. He harbors painful truths against the Empire. He talks about an unfathomable shame and the dire outcome. A mad story nearing the end. Through the increased commotion and failing light, the Dictator discerns the Writer’s words: when the chemicals from the pill reach the thalamus, the Dictator will forever lose his ability to see or fall asleep. The Writer’s voice is fading into echoes, and the Dictator makes an effort to stretch his arms and legs, shakes his head. He thinks it must be a horrific dream, one of those stupid nightmares that used to haunt him as a child. If he could wake up, all would disappear: the men, the smoke, those ugly shadows that plunge off the walls in endless convulsions. There would be no wallpaper, no monstrous patterns or shapes, no blood-oozing colors. No darkness, no footsteps, no whispers or shrieks. Nothing, but the sound of tennis balls under his windows, jumping off rackets, flying across the net—back and forth, back and forth.
A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry holds a B.A. in English from Moscow State Linguistic University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. She has published forty stories, some essays, and poetry. Her work appeared (or is forthcoming) in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Slice, Prairie Schooner, The Bellingham Review, The Southern Review, Bayou, Rosebud, Nimrod, Arts & Letters, Confrontation, and elsewhere. Her short fiction was selected as a finalist for multiple awards, including six Pushcart nominations. Kristina is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her debut novel, Not to Be Reproduced, was shortlisted for the 2016 Dundee International Book Prize.