Year One—The Golden Year
On New Year’s Day, a handsome Army officer named Radislav Skrypsyz steals a tank. He drives it into Revolution Square. He points the gun at the statue of Lenin. He opens the hatch and stands on the tank.
From his tank, Skrypsyz speaks to the nation. He tells us that we are a proud and ancient people, a good and pure race. He tells us that we can drive the Russians back to Moscow. “Narodistan,” he says, “will be free.”
We pull Lenin to the ground, and we fill his head with flowers.
In March, Skrypsyz becomes president. “Our parents spoke Russian,” he says, “but we will speak Narodi.” He teaches us to speak.
Our first words are Zolota Leta—the Golden Year.
The children born in this year are the zolotoi rubyoi—the Golden Babies. President Skrypsyz sends a special package to every new baby born in Narodistan’s first year. The package contains one thousand roubles and a note from the president himself. “You,” he writes, “are the first free children of Narodistan. The new century is yours.”
This note is the treasure of every Golden Baby. President Skrypsyz sends one to every child. He forgets no one. The notes come out of the capital in every direction. They go south and cross the mountains, and they go further south through the wheat, and they come to my small beautiful town.
The doctor says that I should be born on January 10, but my mother wants me to be a Golden Baby. She pushes very hard, and for that I love her. I am born on December 30 of the Golden Year—the very same day that President Skrypsyz establishes the soil and water commission.
I am the most Golden of all the Golden Babies. In spring, when the school puts on a play, I am chosen to play President Skrypsyz. I can curl my lip just like him, and I can speak very loud.
The principal paints an old cart green. I stand on it, and the other Golden Babies gather round. I tell them that we are a proud and ancient people, a good and pure race. Together, we drive out the Russians. The Russians are played by Mendel, a fat boy in a Lenin costume. We chase him off the stage. The adults tell us to stop. Mendel runs out of the building and toward the wheat field. The other children stop, but I follow.
For the first time, I am old enough to vote for President Skrypsyz. I am very proud. We are all very proud. Mendel is the only one in our town who does not vote for the president. Dressing like Lenin may have damaged his brain.
“Eighteen years is too long,” he says.
“Eighteen years more!” I say.
I finish school and join the police. I serve Narodistan. I arrest thieves and drug dealers and homosexuals, and I never take bribes. I am very happy.
One day, I am walking home from the police station. I see a sign: “FILM: FREE.” The sign points to a basement. I go downstairs. At the door are two girls with interesting hair. They ask if I am going to arrest them. No, I say, I want to see the film. They talk to each other. They speak like people on television: they are from the capital. After a lot of talking, they decide that I can see the film.
I go into the basement. There are a few folding chairs. Most people are sitting on the ground. I sit on the ground too. Many of the other people in the room also have interesting hair.
The girls stand at the front of the room. They tell us that they have made this film. It is a documentary. “We made it last year,” they say, “during the protests.”
We all watch the film together. It shows old women who cannot afford bread. It shows people marching into Skrypsyz Square. It shows the police hitting old people and young people. It shows the police putting people into trucks. It shows mothers trying to find their sons. It shows where the trucks took the people—a place like a jail, but outside, a place of snow and wires.
When the film was over, the two girls stand at the front of the room. They ask if we have any questions. I stand up. “Is this film true?” I say.
“Yes,” they say. “We filmed it ourselves.”
“And you are not being paid by Russians to say such things?”
“No,” they say.
I thank them for making the film. “I did not know that this had happened,” I say. I ask if they have shown the film to President Skrypsyz.
“He won’t return my calls,” says one of the girls.
Some people laugh, so I laugh too. He must be a very busy man, President Skrypsyz. But this film is important, I think. If he knew that these terrible things were happening, he would be very angry.
The next day I quit my job. I fill my backpack with clothes, and I fold up my note from President Skrypsyz. On the way to the station I buy crackers and whitefish. It is a long way to the capital.
The two girls who made the movie are already on the train. I sit behind them. They ask what I am doing. I tell them I am going to the capital. I want to see the terrible things for myself. I want to tell President Skrypsyz about them. “He would stop these terrible things,” I tell the girls, “if he only knew.”
The girls have a large thermos, and they give me some hot tea in a paper cup. We share the whitefish and crackers. While they sleep, I look out the window and try to see the country in the darkness.
We go through the mountains, and the next evening we come to the capital. The two girls tell me I can stay with them. They share a bed, and I sleep in a nest of blankets on the floor.
In the morning I walk around the capital and see the famous things. I go to Skrypsyz Square and look at the golden statue of the president’s tank. I climb up a snow bank and touch one of the tank’s golden treads.
On my way back to the girls’ apartment, a police officer stops me. He looks at my documents and tells me that I don’t have the right registration to be in the capital. I have to pay him three hundred roubles.
This happens to me many times. I feel stupid for not having the right registration, but the girls tell me to cheer up. “No one,” they say, “has the right registration.”
I help the two girls with their movies. We all make some money this way. They film the interesting people, and I hold the equipment. Sometimes I hold the camera.
The girls introduce me to many people. Their apartment is always full of people with interesting hair and interesting clothes. Some of the people make films, some make art, some make music. These people teach me a lot about Narodistan.
I learn that it is not just the police who are evil. The whole government is full of evil people. There is the evil parliament, the evil prime minister, and the evil General Zyrgynz, the head of police. All of these men claim to be in President Skrypsyz’s party, but they do evil things. They are all as evil as Russians.
I learn that I had been very stupid when I lived in the south. But now I know a lot.
I don’t always agree with these interesting people. They think that President Skrypsyz is evil too. They think that he is the worst of all—they truly believe that he tells General Zyrgynz and the evil prime minister and the evil parliament what to do.
Many of the interesting people have been to university: they should be smart, and still they believe something so stupid. How can they look at a picture of President Skrypsyz and see an evil man? How can they look up at the golden tank and not feel their chests about to burst? Do they not feel the power? Do they not feel the joy? He is President Skrypsyz, and we are his Golden Babies.
“You’ll learn,” say the interesting people. I promise them that I will never learn.
If President Skrypsyz knew that evil things were happening, he would drive them out, just as he drove out the evil Russians. The evil things only happen because he did not know about them. General Zyrgynz and all the other evil men trick him. They keep him from knowing.
I start writing in a notebook. I write down as many of the evil things as I can. I will send the notebook to President Skrypsyz and hope that the evil men do not keep him from reading it.
In March there is an election. I vote for President Skrypsyz, but I vote against all the evil men in parliament. I hope that some of them will lose their places, but they do not. There are marches in the capital. The two girls and I film the people.
Sometimes people start to chant. “Narodistan without Skrypsyz!” they say. I tell them to be quiet, to say something else. I make my own chant—“Help us, President Skrypsyz!”—but it is very hard to hear.
On the fourth day of the marches, we film in Skrypsyz Square. People are crowded around the golden tank, waving signs. I watch the tank—I have an idea that he will appear and tell us how to drive the evil men out.
In the evening, the crowd does not leave. The trucks come out. The police hit people and put them into trucks. The girls film this. A police officer tells them to stop, and they film him. He hits them with his club. He tries to hit them again, but I push the equipment bag at him, so he hits the bag instead. He hits me a few times, but I keep pushing him with the bag. A few more police officers come over and hit me. I drop the bag and fall down, and they hit me with their clubs and boots. It hurts a lot, and one of the police officers squashes my eye.
The police officers put me in a truck, and the truck takes me somewhere. Someone takes my documents out of my coat. He says I don’t have the right registration to be in the capital, and so I have to spend some time in jail. They put me in another truck.
I don’t want to talk about the jail. Every day, I wish I had my notebook.
After a month, a man tells me I can leave. He says it is the special order of President Skrypsyz. The man takes my picture. I get on a truck and go back to the capital.
I walk to the girls’ apartment. They make tea, and I ask if I can sleep in the bed.
The next day they tell me what happened. They took a video of the police hitting me, and they put the video on the internet.
I ask to see the video, and the girls and I watch the police squash my eye again. The girls type my name in the computer, and there I am—in English, in French, in Russian, in Japanese. People all over the world have been watching the police squash my eye.
“The world saw our video,” they say. “The British, the Germans, the Americans—they were angry. Their governments threatened Skrypsyz. So he let you go.”
I correct the girls. President Skrypsyz would never bow to the foreign governments. He listens only to the Narodi people. He must have seen the video himself. He saw me, and in his goodness he freed me. He knew, finally he knew!
The girls type some other things into the computer, and there I am again—a picture of me leaving the jail.
The girls speak some English, and I ask them to translate the headline. “After threats from West,” it says, “Narodi dictator frees dissident.”
They tell me what a dissident is, and I laugh and laugh.
After the girls put my video on the internet, many Americans and Europeans want to talk to me. Journalists want to ask me questions. A charity in Sweden wants to make sure I am safe. They offer to send money so that I could go to Sweden and be safe and talk to journalists.
I will never leave Narodistan, of course.
I send my notebook to President Skrypsyz. He does not receive it. He saw my video, but General Zyrgynz and all the other evil men keep him from knowing anything else. They are still very strong. I buy a new notebook.
The police come to our apartment, and they take the girls’ cameras. The girls buy new cameras. Next time, the police take the girls.
The girls come back a few weeks later, and they do not want to talk about the jail either.
I too have to go back to the jail. I keep trying to tell President Skrypsyz about our problems, and this makes General Zyrgynz and the others angry. I still don’t have the right registration.
I start to get tired. The girls are also tired. We are too tired to film. The interesting people are all tired, it seems, and less interesting.
The girls tell me many times that I should leave. Go to Sweden, they say. Get out of Narodistan. Don’t come back until this is a normal country.
I tell the girls that I will never leave.
But sometimes I am very tired. Sometimes instead of writing in my notebook, I use the girls’ computer and look at pictures of Sweden on the internet.
In those moments, when I am looking at the green cliffs and the little boats, I know I am an evil man. I am as evil as General Zyrgynz and the prime minister and the parliament, as evil as all those interesting people, as evil as the girls. We have been evil children, all of us, evil as Russians. Some happy day, President Skrypsyz will again stand on his tank, and he will drive us all out.
Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He holds degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in The Rappahannock Review and Really System and is forthcoming in Per Contra and the Yalobusha Review. He lives in Massachusetts.