Jeremy Packert Burke
Arturo is in the Resistance. Of course, it isn’t called the Resistance. It isn’t called anything. One cannot speak of the Resistance because one never knows who is listening, whom to trust, who else belongs. Arturo is a guard at the state bakery, watching to make sure the ovens are clean and filled with cakelets, that the bakers work diligently, that they do not speak of illicit topics such as water filters, gumballs, “adult contemporary” music, parquet, or sauce. He stands before the bakery door, dreaming of walking by a baker and whispering into their tall white hat, “Have you any sauce?” He tongues the daily medication received at the dispensary, pills whose purpose no one quite knows. (Some theories: they suppress words, or suppress emotion; they make the brain work too quickly, give it a false feeling of euphoria, a false sense of depression, the sensation that there is a dog just around the corner.) He expects he will feel quite different once the pills have all left his bloodstream. He expects then—then!—he will have the courage to whisper, “Have you any sauce?” to a baker, carefully chosen to join him in the Resistance that consists, for now, to his knowledge, only of him. Today, however, Arturo does no such thing. At the end of the day he goes home to his mother, Veronika.
Veronika is also in the Resistance. She writes letters, long letters, cataloguing the names of the dead. She memorizes her lists and burns them. They are not addressed to anyone, but as the ash rises in a puff of hot air, clouding the windowless bathroom, the names of the dead clotting her lungs, the blackened undone paper catching the light to give it shape, she cannot help but feel that these names are going somewhere. That they will rise through the jaundiced light and the clattering bathroom fan, rise as she waits for all the smoke to dissipate, waits for this double blur to clear; they will rise and become clouds, and the names of the dead will rain down across the city, falling into the upturned mouths of children, nourishing the trees that are cut to regulation lengths, forming puddles that wild animals drink from so when they leave this place, they carry the names with them.
Veronika waits for the smoke to dissipate, ignoring the thumps of Arturo, the door jarring in its jamb. She cannot let him see this, cannot let him know. He will report her, she thinks.
When at last the cloud is gone she leaves the bathroom. Arturo hurries in, party newspaper in hand. Veronika lounges on her bed within the limits of regulated time, waiting for Friedrich, her lover.
Friedrich, too, is in the Resistance. He is a baker at the bakery Arturo guards. Friedrich puts a few drops of blood into every fifth cakelet baked. Sometimes instead of bleeding into them he eats them. Snatches the dribbles of frosting and cake out of the mouths of the state leaders, gnawing them to crumbs behind the stairwell. He does not know where the stairs lead; he is forbidden from climbing them. No one ever goes up or comes down. He does not investigate.
Every three to five months, Friedrich reports on the invented crimes of his coworkers. “Ilya cursed the name of the state!” or “Patricia hid a razor blade in a cakelet!” or “Mauricio bled into the batter!” As each purloined cake is soon replaced with a fresh one, so each betrayed coworker’s space is filled by a new baker, terrified and starched white.
Friedrich sobs behind the stairwell, cramming his cakelet into his mouth, thinking of all his near misses, worrying always that his coworkers will report him if he does not beat them to it. As he returns to the bakery floor he passes Beatrice, a new bakery guard, and keeps his eyes very still so they will not give him away with their meanderings, their vibrations.
Beatrice is not in the Resistance. Beatrice’s father, two brothers, mother, lover, and dog were all in the Resistance. They disappeared. Their names scarring Veronika’s lungs. By transubstantiation, Friedrich’s blood in platelet cakelets becomes their faultless blood in the mouths of the party leaders. Beatrice doesn’t know why she should continue to live but continues nonetheless. (In hope, perhaps, that if she can simply live long enough, if she can keep her head down and prevent her own disappearance, she will outlive this terror.)
In bed at night, she erases their memories from her mind. Locks them away in jammed dresser drawers, paints them on soon-shattered amphorae, buries their effigies to the neck in the sand and lets the oceans carry them off. Metaphorically, obviously; she, ranking low in the party, doesn’t have ocean privileges.
Here is a night her parents hustled her and her siblings out of bed, into the mountains to watch the Perseids, the summer mountain air shockingly cool against her browned skin, which still held the warmth of day. Lying on their backs, wrapped in blankets, her father pointing a green laser of high magnitude, naming the stars that did not fall.
Here is the final time she and her friends gathered before college. Beatrice and her lover (her name erased) walking hand in hand and clothesless into the river like mythical heroines, like souls leaving the underworld. Their male friends called out salaciously but they were too drunk and in love to care. The afternoon sun broken by the layered leaves, dust stuck to their bodies, dried there, as if waiting for words to be written in it.
Here is her older brother designing board games as a child. Dense maps of markered cardboard, spring-loaded platforms waiting to launch pieces into a bog, a spider’s web, a pit of spikes. He crafted the pieces out of clay and fired them in their stove, which only went to three hundred fifty degrees no matter how you turned the knob.
Beatrice breaks the game pieces in her mind. Cleans away the dust. Unnames the stars. She takes the pills from the dispensary. She sleeps and dreams dreams she will forget by dawn.
At the bakery in the morning Beatrice and Arturo are called to a windowless bunker. A man, Ji, kneels before an officer. The latest victim of Friedrich’s reporting.
Ji, like Beatrice, is not in the Resistance. He has worked quietly in the bakery for years, speaking to no one inside or out for fear his tongue will give some indication against him. He does not know why he has been brought here. He knows what is meant to happen, but not why. Surely the mistake will be cleared up.
Ji was once an actor of no real renown. Performing in small-scale versions of Euripides and Sophocles, delivering Aristophanes’s jokes well enough to elicit a few confused chuckles.
One day the words simply caught in his throat: How dreadful the knowledge of truth can be. He croaked up on the stage: “Hhhhhh. Hhhhhhh.” He could not play at the blind prophet any longer. By the time the state rounded up the artists he had been forgotten. He had forgotten how to lie convincingly. And so he keeps his silence. Lives inside it like a shield.
There is a moment of recognition when Beatrice looks at Ji. A moment of knowledge, of realization. Beatrice knows in that moment that Ji is not what the officer standing before her claims, knows that this man could not possibly be the leader of a terrorist cell. She shivers as the officer hands her and the other guard billy clubs, commands, “Find out what he knows.”
This man, Beatrice knows, is as alone as she is—and she thinks, in that moment, that with the officer gone, she might pull back, might not hurt Ji the way she is asked to. She thinks that, perhaps, this mercy will be her first act of resistance. There is a light in his eyes that is matched in her own. A unity of spirit, of will. They will stand together, damn the consequences. They will Resist!
Arturo lunges for Ji and smashes his billy club against the man’s neck, knocking him to the floor. The wind leaves Ji’s lungs—the light, his eyes. Arturo grips his club tighter, lunges again. A great crack as the club undoes Ji’s knucklebones, and Ji lets out a cry. Arturo knows that this man, this careless Resistor, must be punished for his sloppiness, must be sacrificed so that Arturo can go on Resisting. He must drown so that Arturo can float.
Beatrice freezes for a moment in sheer violenced terror. Arturo’s club sprays teeth across the floor. In a spasm like the cold chattering of a jaw, she flinches out at Ji, smashing her club in places untouched by Arturo. She is terrified by the look on Arturo’s face, his zealous hatred of the man sprawled across the floor and moaning. Foam flecking Arturo’s lips, eyes wide and shaking. She is terrified that she considered, even for a second, trusting anyone to join with her against the all-knowing power of the state. It was stupid, she thinks. Reckless. She strikes again, firmer now. One more memory to erase, one more thing to leave behind.
When they finish their work and stand at the sink, scrubbing the clotted blood from their hands, Arturo turns to her and whispers gently, gently, “Have you any sauce?”
She has no idea what he means but reports him regardless.
Jeremy Packert Burke (@jempburke) is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He has had work in Day One, The Nashville Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places.
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