By Anthony Watkins
Argon lies in the region of middle Europe that has been trampled upon by Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and its own long line of internal despots. In area, it is larger than Paris and smaller than Brittany. Argon was one of the several kingdoms created at the beginning of the dissolution of the old Ottoman Empire. Half the population, a little under a million souls, live in the capital and only real city, Tanya, named for an early Queen who, with beauty, raw sexuality and a sharp knife, saved the city by seducing one of Napoleon’s generals and beheading him in his sleep. She spiked his head on a pole and hung it over the street from her bedroom window, thus allowing the capture of his terrorized and demoralized force. The negotiated settlement with the French Emperor, left Argon intact.
Across the plaza from my hotel is Tanya’s statue. It stands in a park here at the center of the city, her breasts bare and one hand clasping both a bed sheet gathered at her waist and long curved knife, the other raising the pole bearing the unfortunate French general’s head. This is Argon’s most sacred shrine. From the balcony, I can see a major portion of the rest of this small country. It is a series of hills and low mountains that are primarily composed of iron ore. While the low hills and valley to the southern edge of the capitol city are fertile and supply the domestic food crops, the mountains struggle to grow small blackened bushes. Several hundred thousand Argonions live in corrugated metal sheds and work the ore pits by hand. The giant iron plants dot the barren landscape and have the look of anthills. As I drink my bitter morning coffee, I watch what seems like unending lines of carts, small trucks and old cars with the roof cut off, all stuffed to overflowing with the tell-tale canvas bags filled with the red ore dust. The hills of the country side are continuously decreasing and the mountains of depleted earth grow taller and broader everyday surrounding each iron plant. After several hundred years of iron extraction, there still seems to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of ore.
Beyond my line of sight, off to the south, a few thousand farmers work small plots of wheat, onions and cabbage with heavy iron tractors. The tractors, like all domestically produced motorized vehicles, use a variation of the small two cylinder, two-cycle, air cooled diesel engine, the Argon. More about this little block of iron later.
The Argonions are a sturdy people, who seem more so to any outsider who comes to live in Tanya. No outsider would stay longer than a week in the countryside, and then only for the purpose of inspecting a business investment or as the author’s case, documenting the facts of the very existence of the huts and hills and iron plants. This sturdiness is contrasted with the ill health and general weakness of the long term visitor due to the iron toxicity of the local diet to anyone except those genetically predisposed people to tolerate such a poisonous environment.
The Argon River starts near the northern border of the nation and becomes a navigable river just before it flows through the heart of Tanya, its iron blackened water moving sluggishly down a meandering path to the Slavic border in the southeast corner. The part of Tanya to the East of the river is known as Left Tanya, and the older Western side of the city is known as Tanya Right, which in the Argonion tongue also means Tanya Proper. My hotel, the Hotele Tanya, is only a few blocks from the river on the Proper side. It is a tall gray, featureless almost Soviet-style building. Inside, the rooms are furnished in crude, heavy solid wood pieces. In some respects, this is a fine hotel, certainly the finest in Argon, but it does not rise to the level of Paris. Actually, it would not make it as a Day’s Inn in Paris, Tennessee. But I am grateful for the accommodations, having stayed in the countryside a week at a time. There are no real inns outside of Tanya, as almost no one travels to anywhere else, unless they are going to see relatives. In Argon, the custom of visiting relatives from the privacy of a nearby hotel room has not yet come to pass.
This reversal of Left and Right is apparently due to the settlement of the country by nomadic tribes from the north. Their point of progressive reference was the southern sky, thus East was Left and West was Right.
Tanya Right is the home of the government, the site of the old mansions as well as most of the middle class housing and the offices of private law, medicine and commerce. Tanya Left is filled with peasant ghettos and the heavy industry of turning iron into consumer products.
Due to the iron toxicity problem, almost all Argonions are the direct descendents of those original tribes people. Pretty much the entire country has the common surname of Argon, which literally means, “the family.” To distinguish each other, they use their middle names as family names, these have broadened over the century to include about three dozen families. For first names, approximately half the population is either named Marek, Yapa, Tanya or Gilta. Nicknames are unknown. This would make a phone directory or any other such listing quite useless. Of course, there are very few phone lines and they belonged exclusively to government agencies until the recent changes. Now the country has thousands of mobile phones in the possession of the capitalist foreigners and their associates within government. I receive a first hand account of this every morning at breakfast. Every other table seems to be filled with Westerners or Russian “cowboy capitalists”, all of them chewing bread and sipping the ever present bitter black coffee, while wheeling and dealing with each other and their partners a half a globe away.
The ancient Argonions set up society as an offshoot of family life, thus, while the men did much of the hard labor, the women made the community decisions. In theory, all Argonions were equal from the beginning. There were no ballots, no kings, just women trying to keep order and feed their families, but as the great social novel Animal Farm so beautifully illustrates, it doesn’t take long for equals to divide up into the lesser and greater equals. As the tribe and nation grew, conflicts arose and families grew more extended and distended. Eventually a system of sport was developed to determine the holders of power.
Young women, of child bearing age, but who are as yet childless battle using iron rods. They fight naked, wearing only turbans reddened with ferrous dust. The turban represents the young woman’s honor. The first one to lose the head dress, loses the bout and cedes power to the one who remains with her head covered. The challenge has increased by holding the contests on the week of the full moon in February, and the women compete on ice skates. No one seems to know exactly the origin of this sport, and if in the early days were the turbans worn as close to the skull as they are today. One thing is clear, today’s loser invariably suffers a cracked skull and succumbs. In fact, sometime after the famous episode with Tanya and the French soldier, a ceremonial curved sword was added. The sword is jabbed into the dirt by the challenging woman. The winner uses it to sever the crushed head from its body, spike it and parade it around the arena. Because of the brutal nature of this system, a strong and skillful woman may serve for many years unopposed. If a woman becomes a mother while holding a position of authority, she must step down when challenged. A victory allows a woman to serve five years without another challenge. While this seems barbaric and unladylike to many outsiders, Argonions love the spectacle of their elections, which include dancing and celebrations for days prior to as well as after the actual completion. The men and women attend the event, but sit in separate sections. The glory of two young women fighting to the death, nude on skates in the freezing weather, with the clanging of iron rods one against the other, red turbans flashing, wild betting among the spectators and the very balance of power of the nation riding on the contests, one must admit, apathy is not the problem we have in so many western democracies.
I wanted to see the election, but outsiders are strictly prohibited. I did manage a bit of second hand luck, though through a chance taxi ride. As I stood outside the Aerotroup eg Tanya Pazir, or the Tanya International Airport, I spied a shabby man leaning on an even shabbier car. I decided to take this opportunity to get to know a real Tanyan.
“You speak English?“ I asked. It is the most desperate phrase in any civilized language. But it is also the password to gates otherwise closed. In any country, an English speaking guide can show the world.
“Of course, I speak English. My name is Wiljiam. Do you want to get to the grand hotel or see a bit of the city first?“
“Oh the city, and then the hotel,“ I answered.
“I can show the real Tanya,“ he said, creaking open the rear door. “Get in,“ he said as he took my bags and wired the trunk shut after them.
“What is your fare?“ I asked, as a degree of reason kicked in. I was contemplating getting into the rustiest, dirtiest and possibly the smallest car I had ever seen, with an obviously illegal chauffer.
“Same as the limos,“ he replied, “twenty Dowkars to the Hotel.”
I climbed onto the tiny bench of a rear seat. “Can you take to the arena where the elections are held?”
“I can take you by there, of course you cannot get out of the car, or both of us will be shot,” Wiljiam said.
“Shot? They shoot tourists around here?” I asked, astounded.
“Not around here, tourists are expected here, not often, but often enough. But the Arena, no tourists, no journalists, nobody but Argonions. We both would beshot, because it would be obvious that you were a nosy outsider and I would be a traitor to bring you there. It will cost you ten more Dowkars, and you will have to wear my hat,” he offered me a greasy fedora. I put on the hat.
“You cannot go to an election, but I will tell of the one in which I met my wife,” he added.
“Was she a contestant?” I asked.
“No, we were both there because of our families,” he answered.
With that, Wiljiam eased the tiny Tanya sedan into the traffic behind a smoky small truck that puttered by, as only an overused two-cylinder diesel can. As he pushes his own 30 horse power diesel to its limit and crunches the primitive gearbox into it’s second and highest gear, we are nearly overrun by a fleet of large dark German sedans, powered, no doubt by the huge, technically sophisticated engines that produce up to twenty times the power of the old Argons.
The cold air rips through the rusting seems in the iron sheeting used to cover the cabin of the little sedan. Ice glazes the roadway, Wiljiam says it reminds him of the day he met Elisabete. I want to hear about his meeting of Elisabete, but Iworry if something as mundane as a fatal car crash may keep me from writing this story. He keeps glancing over his shoulder, and when he gets to a particularly intense point, he turns almost full around so he can make good eye contact. Of course, he cannot talk without gesturing. There are moments when we are skating across blackened ice patches and Wiljiam is looking at me, gesturing and totally lost in the moment of his tale.
“She has flashing blue-green eyes, and her long dark hair was covered in a red turban.” He explained, “Everybody in Argon has either green, blue or blue green eyes, but hers caught are magnificent.” Wiljiam continued, “According to tradition the female family members of a contestant wear the turban during the day of election.” Here I feel obliged to inform the reader, the “election” is what locals call the fight to the death that determines government leaders.
“Elisabete’s cousin, is a short stocky girl named Tanya Kilkgurn Argon,” Wiljiam explained. “She had challenged Gilta Margroot Argon, the ruling Dictate of the southern district of Tanya Right.”
“I am a Margroot, or at least by blood I am, though my family name is Joath,” he continued. “I should have been showing support for my cousin Gilta, not with a turban, but with a red sash or tie. I wasn’t. Gilta and I were the same age, we had played together as children.” “I found her to be evil and ruthless even as a child. I would not mourn seeing her dead eyes on a stranger’s stick. I came in hopes of watching a challenger dethrone her, Wiljiam admits.
“Elisabete, in contrast, hardly knew Tanya, but was devoted to her family. As snow swirled across the broad plain of the arena floor, and among the cheers and taunts of Argonions drunk on Zoocalo, our eyes met.” Wiljiam nearly slides into a row of belching buses, staring intently into my face, “It was love at first sight, as they say.“ He looks misty, “the crowd noise faded and the sight of the two rows of nude skaters amid their dusty red plumage became secondary. All I saw was Elisabete.”
As Tanya sliced off the head of Wiljiam’s cousin, he and Elisabete met in the aisle, joined hands and left the arena. After their first cup of bitter coffee, they quickly fell for each other. Within a year they had a child, Wiljiam shows me a typical, but beautiful Argonian child in the picture he has taped to the dashboard. “We still live with Elisabete’s family, but we are going to find our own apartment soon.”
“How did you get to be a taxi driver?” I asked. “I was a union leader. I think you would call me a shop steward.“ I ran a local in an old state owned factory. Western style business downsized most of the workers and eliminated much of the domestic industries. Former factory workers are trying to learn how to sell each other cheap improved models of the commodities they used to roll off massive government owned assembly lines.”
“I understand about that, it is a common story in countries when the central planned economy is replaced my market forces, but how did you go from shop steward to taxi driver? And how did you end up as an outlaw taxi?” I asked.
His father, Yapa Joath Argon, had been a shop steward, a strong backed and strong willed laborer, respected on the shop floor and appreciated by the bureaucrats in the front office for his ability to keep peace among his wards. Yapa had never led a labor action, never needed to, he played the expectations and fears of his mates and of his superiors well enough to maintain a contented shop. Wiljiam earned his father’s spot by birthright.
Wiljiam seems to lack his late father‘s skill at diplomacy. His father’s retirement and subsequent, premature death at age 60, left Wiljiam with both the linemen and the bureaucrats despising him.
“I don’t know how he did it,” Wiljiam laments. “I was an easy target, my family history as a union activist combined with the failing unions meant there was no one to protect me. The ones who used to look to my father now turned on me. Two years ago, I was released in the first round of layoffs.” “I spend my days reading in the free section of the state library. The books are not kept up as well, as the new private subscription only sections, but, most of the same titles are available. If you are willing to wait, and if you didn’t mind reading dirty, torn and smudged pages.” Wiljiam adds, “I don’t mind waiting, I have plenty of time.” He used to live and work in the car. Today his car is still an illegal taxi, but at night, he goes home to his new family. Most of the Dowkars, the new currency, he earns were from ferrying the even less fortunate around in his sagging rusty Tanya. Occasionally, he picks up a foreign rider, like myself, but usually they use the European chain rentals.
He supplements this meager income by tutoring the slightly less brilliant children of those trying to break through the thin slice of middle-class, into the reaches of power.
“The middle-class was composed almost entirely of the savviest of the corrupt midlevel government officials, who made enough graft from assisting the gangster entrepreneurs in their ever bolder pillage of the old state industries,” Wiljiam explains. “Today I study law and history, but I realize both are being rewritten faster than I can take in the texts of either.”
“How did you live? I mean where, are things any better?” I asked.
“Before Elisabete, I washed myself and my spare suit out in the stinking public restrooms attached to the rear of the main library. About once every month or so, I would drive across the great iron bridges, into the East village, check into a cheap hotel that supplied a fairly secure locking door, running water, a not particularly clean bed and a steady supply of whores who were both cheaper than the hotel room and less clean.” Wiljiam’s idea of luxury seemed to be a real cold water stand up shower, and a few hours stretched out away from the batons and questions of prying police/collector agents.
“I never stayed the whole night through. My routine was to park my repossessable car on a side street and walk to the motel office, carrying a small cardboard case under my arm. After I checked in, bathed and rinsed out my spare suit, I would step out of the door and summon a nearby woman.”
After she fulfilled his most basic need for companionship, he would pay her five Dowkars, lock the door behind her and sleep deeply for three or four hours, take another cold bath, put on his now dry change of clothes, pack his dirty suit in the frayed cardboard and stroll to his car.
At the time I took this initial taxi ride, I had little way of knowing, but Wiljiam is, in fact, on the very upper edges of his invisible world. The car, as well as the salable skill carries him well above the ranks of beggar squatters who live by the slow black waters underneath the network of heavy black iron bridges.
Wiljiam pointed these lowest of the low out to me as we passed through the river district. “Those are Trolls, like in the American fairytales.” He continues, “others live in abandoned buildings in the old factory sites, but these areas tend to be patrolled more heavily by the security forces of the new corporate government.” The ones in the shuttered factories are simply called Shed Men. They are often rounded up and forced to work on the private chain gangs, cleaning ditches, pulling weeds, painting out buildings on the estates of the newly wealthy thugs. Society, such as remains, sees little difference between this practice and the old one of corrupt government officials using people convicted of being a burden to the state for similar purposes.
The Trolls give up the sense of safety of the old factory buildings, for the much more real open air security of out-of-sight, out-of-mind world below the grates, beside the stinking river of refuse that divides the city. Only when a Troll ventures up to scavenge a dumpster meal, or raid a waste bin for a reusable scrap does he run serious risk of arrest and enslavement. The truth is, freedom for a Troll or a Shed Man is only marginally better, if it is better, at all, than the chain, the two servings of bread and coffee, clean water and weekly changes of overalls supplied for those who labored beneath the casual barrels of shotguns. Wiljiam says, “I rarely think of Trolls or Shed Men. They are peasant fools, they and their kind were peasants from before the last ten centuries. They will be peasants for the rest of my life and beyond. I am going to become Middle Class!” Today, Wiljiam plots his return to the comfort of the middle position. As Wiljiam checks his fuel gauge and considers his options for supper, I give him a generous tip and watch his smoky departure from the front of Hotele Tanya.
I‘ll never know how much his story was true, but that is really beside the point. I was well entertained and on my publishers travel account. And the twenty Dowkar tip was less than five dollars, American. The hotel is warm and well lit.
I order Hotele Tanya Gran Plat, a thin beef steak wrapped around goat cheese, fermented cabbage, and beets. It is served in a bed in brown mashed potatoes and covered with a garlic laden gravy. The food is much better than the Zoocalo wine served with it. The thick crusted black bread they call Gshoute, pronounced “goos te”, was almost worth the trip in itself. Rich whole grains of wheat and barley sopped up the garlic gravy and made me think of manna!