(Image: Sir John Tenniel, c. 1865, public domain.)
Gvtaren stepped warily into the cool passageway. She was early, she knew that, but she also knew that it was best that way. This was new terrain for her, but the rules were the same as always: Stay low, stay downwind, don’t make eye contact… and always, always, remember that you are here to observe, not to interfere.
There was a doorway at the end of the corridor. Frosted glass, gold lettering. She stopped, sniffed the air, and frowned. A new scent, layered on top of the light aroma of oak, leather-bound books, and cleaning fluid. Could it be fear? Her heart pounded just a little as she pushed open the door.
Before her lay a narrow table, and next to it the thin, boxy frame of a metal detector. She knew what to do. “Don’t make eye contact,” she reminded herself as she placed her purse on the table and a uniformed guard scurried over to sniff it.
The guard looked up at her and nodded. “Evening miss,” he said with a smile.
“Show them your teeth,” she reminded herself of something she had heard once. In a lecture, perhaps. “They like it when you show your teeth.” And she smiled back.
When she had passed through the metal detector, another guard handed her her purse. “Have a good evening!” He said to her. She smiled and said “you too!” She pushed through the next door, and entered the chamber.
More guards stood inside the door, and on the other side of the room. A few other people were milling about quietly. Speaking, but only so those very close to them could hear. Gvtaren found a seat at the back of the chamber and settled in to wait.
She watched closely as the room began to fill up. A few rows in front of her, at the end of the row, sat a man and a young woman. Their faces looked grey, she thought. And she thought she had seen the man’s face somewhere. They were perfectly silent, sitting quietly together, unsmiling, eyes focused on the empty seats at the front of the room. Slowly, more and more people came into the room, wandered about, found seats, and waited.
After a while, the seats at the front of the room began to fill up too. There were eleven of them, five on either side of one very large seat in the middle, behind a long curved table, perched up on a small stage, looking out over the rest of the room. The men and women who came to sit in these seats were considerably louder and cheerier than the people who now filled the seats in the main part of the room. A young man in a freshly pressed suit was with them, but he had no seat. Instead, he stood next to the end of the long table, holding a notepad and pen, and scurried from time to time to the side of one or another of the people in the seats. Gvtaren guessed that he was some kind of intern.
She had been scribbling away in her notepad, writing down her observations as she had been trained to do. Nothing was too small, no word or gesture insignificant. She was here to capture it all. She scanned the room slowly, taking note of the faces, the attitudes, the emotions… where had she seen that man’s face before? She watched as he wrapped an arm around the young woman next to him, and she leaned in to rest her head on his shoulder.
A hush came over the room, and Gvtaren looked up. The man who sat in the big chair had just entered the room, and was making his way over to his seat. This must be the Council Elder, she thought, and scribbled something in her notepad.
“Glad you could join us!” Called out one of the people in one of the seats on the little stage, cheerily. A woman in her forties in a bright blue suit, with orange-ish hair that framed her face like a lion’s mane – but a very stiff one, one that would never blow in the breeze or bounce along with her as she pounced across the savannah, Gvtaren imagined.
“We were about to give your seat away!” Chirped another – a Hispanic man with a tight goatee, probably in his mid thirties. Gvtaren’s hand was scribbling quickly.
The man who had just come in stood in front of the big chair and began to tap on the microphone that was perched in front of him. A loud whupping sound filled the room.
“Well, looks like they’ve got the mics working this week!” He chuckled loudly.
The others in the seats at the front of the room chuckled too. This man was a little older than the others, probably in his fifties, Gvtaren guessed. His hair was greying but not quite grey, and his face had the soft-but-stern appearance of a kindly father. She kept scribbling.
The man looked out over the seats in front of him, and boomed: “All rise for the Sky Cloth Chant!”
Gvtaren watched as everyone else in the room stood, turned toward the Sky Cloth that hung in one of the front corners, placed their hands solemnly over their hearts, and recited the Chant in unison. When they were finished, they all sat down again.
“So, Councilmember Peters,” the Council Elder called out cheerily, through his fully functional microphone, “I hear there was a birthday this week!”
The woman with the frozen lion’s-mane hair, who Gvtaren now recognized as Councilmember Peters, beamed and prattled on for several minutes about how they had originally planned to have her son’s birthday party at Six Flags, but then they found out that WonderSlides Water Park had a discount for City employees, and they were able to rent out the entire park for only $300! The other Councilmembers ooohed and aaahed and asked what flavor the birthday cake was.
“Well, I prefer plain vanilla myself,” the Council Elder chuckled. “No, it’s true!” He replied to the giggles from the seats to his sides. “Now,” he turned to each side, “who else? Anything else to share?”
A few other Councilmembers piped up with accounts of their activities during the past week. There was much chuckling, and everyone showed their teeth.
By the time the Council Elder announced that it was time to begin Official Business, Gvtaren had been sitting in her seat for nearly an hour and a half. The grey-faced man and young woman sat stiffly ahead of her. “Official Business”, according to the printed schedule Gvtaren had picked up when she entered the chamber, began with a series of announcements, and then moved on to comments and presentations from the public.
By the time the Councilmembers had finished making their announcements, Gvtaren had been sitting in her seat for two and a quarter hours. Finally, it was time for the Council to hear from the people in the seats. The grey-faced man leaned over and kissed the young woman on the forehead, she gave his arm a squeeze and whispered something to him. He stood up and made his way over to the podium that stood just below the long curved table.
The man leaned into the microphone on the podium, and began to speak:
“Good evening,” he began. “I came here tonight to ask the Council…”
“Excuse me!” There was a loud squealing through the speakers, and everyone in the room covered their ears. “Excuse me!” A small Councilmember with mousey hair screeched into her microphone. “I’ve just been informed that the Chippewa Chachalacas have just won the Division A state tournament!”
There was light clapping from the room, and delighted ooooohs and aaaaahs from around the table. The man with the grey face seemed to sag just a little. He stood there at the podium, unsure what to do.
“Well,” the Council Elder boomed, “I think we’re going to have to hear about this!” He waved at the man with his hand. “Let’s hold off on comments from the public for a little longer!”
The man at the podium remained standing there. His eyes closed for a moment, and then opened again.
“With all due respect,” he began, “my daughter and I have been here since six o’clock. It is now eight thirty. I came to ask a few simple questions, that I have submitted repeatedly to the city over the past two months and have received no response…”
It was then that Gvtaren remembered where she had seen the man’s face. She watched as the muscles on the Council Elder’s face tightened, and a darkness descended upon his brow.
“Sir,” he barked, his voice deeper now, “you will have to sit down now. We’ve had a change to the program, and you will just have to be patient. Everyone else is waiting patiently, I think you can too.”
Gvtaren noticed the guards on either side of the raised platform adjust their stances and bring their hands to the sides of their hips.
The man just stood there for a moment, as if in disbelief. Then, without a word, he turned and walked back to his seat. His daughter was waiting for him, her head shaking slightly.
“Now!” The Council Elder brightened. “Let’s hear about those Chachalacas!”
And for the next twenty minutes, the Councilmembers heaped lavish praise upon their beloved Chachalacas. The Chachalacas who had valiantly gone forth into battle against one rival sportsing team after another, vanquishing them one by one and bringing honor to their people; The Chachalacas who had made generous donations of their time and efforts to local Scouting troupes, teaching them the ways of their sportsing; The Chachalacas who have a long history of overcoming adversity, and who are models for us all.
Meanwhile, Gvtaren began to recall in vivid detail the reason she knew this man’s face: There had been a front-page story in the Chippewa Herald with an image of a dozen police officers standing in the man’s yard; another image of the man’s fifteen-year-old son lying dead on the lawn in front of him; the words “mentally unstable”, and “ongoing investigation.”
One of the Councilmembers sniffed as she read from a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the Chachalacas. Then, the intern raced breathlessly to the table with the news that the entire team would be stopping by later to receive their congratulations in person. There was talk of a cake.
When, finally, the discussion of the Chachalacas came to an end, it was nearly nine o’clock. The Council Elder reminded the room that “sportsing is all about family!” And called for a big round of applause for the local team.
“Well,” he said as the applause died down, “now I guess it’s time for the boring part of the meeting!”
Once more, the man with the grey face made his way up to the podium.
“I don’t think what I have to say is boring,” he said to the Councilmembers seated before him.
“I never said that!” The Council Elder exclaimed. The man at the podium just looked at him.
“Please proceed with your comments,” A male Councilmember with thinning hair and a plaid jacket smiled and invited the man to continue.
“Thank you, Councilmember Evans,” said the man, and then he began to speak.
He started by saying that those he was addressing already knew why he was here, as he had been requesting information from them for the past three months with no response. So he had come here tonight to make his request once more, in person.
He told the story of how, on June 18th, his fifteen-year-old son began acting erratically, screaming, throwing things, threatening other family members. He told how his son had been receiving treatment for mental and emotional problems, but how they had never seen him like that before. He told how he and his wife felt desperate, didn’t know what to do, and decided to call the police for help.
He told of the dozen police officers who came to his home, how they tried to get his son to calm down, how they were equipped with tasers and other non-lethal weapons, but somehow ended up shooting his son multiple times and killing him.
He told of his attempt to get answers from both the police department and the City Council to his questions, namely: Why twelve adult men with non-lethal weapons were unable to subdue a mentally unstable teenager; why they believed they had no other option but to shoot to kill his son; and what the City planned to do to change how the police handle situations with mentally unstable people in the future so that something like this never happens again.
As he began to speak, the Councilmembers, who only moments ago had been cheering their town’s sportsing victory, quickly put on their somber faces. They looked at him as he spoke, occasionally cocking their heads or nodding solemnly.
He told of submitting multiple requests for answers to these questions, and how, for more than two months now, he had received no response.
Around the table, the Councilmembers nodded their heads sympathetically. The Council Elder leaned forward to speak.
“Sir,” he began, “I can understand your frustration. But you need to understand that the wheels of justice, and of administration, often turn very slowly. Now if you can submit to us a written account of what you’ve just said here, including your questions, I can promise that I will do my best to get it into the right hands.”
The man gave a deflated sigh.
“I’ve already sent it to you, and to every office I can think of,” he said. “But if you can think it will help for me to send it one more time, then I will do that.”
“I will do my best,” repeated the Council Elder.
“In the meantime,” the man continued, “I did want to bring to the Council’s attention an irregularity I encountered while making my inquiries…”
“I’m sorry,” the lion’s-mane Councillor spoke into her microphone, “your three minutes are up.”
The man stared in disbelief.
“I was just finishing,” he said. “Could I just tell you about the issue is that I encountered, and that I think you all should know about? What I found was…”
Lion’s mane was shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, more sternly this time, “but your time is up!”
There were calls from the people seated in the room: “Let him finish!” “Let him say what he has to say!” “For God’s sake, let him talk!” And Gvtaren saw that same darkness that had descended onto the brow of the Council Elder earlier, now fall across the face of the lion’s-mane lady.
The Councillor addressed the room now: “There are rules of order!” She almost yelled. “And if we let this man break those rules, then we will have to let everyone else break them! And we would have nothing but chaos!”
“Chaos!” “Chaos, yes!” “It would be chaos!” “Chaos!” The Councillors around her nodded and murmured in unison.
“Please,” the man continued, “I only…”
“Don’t raise your voice!” The Councillor with the stiff lion’s-mane hair bellowed into her microphone, her face shaking, but her coif remaining eternally still. Each of the guards leaned forward just slightly, their hands still on their hips. Gvtaren scribbled furiously in her notepad.
“Please sit down!” The Councillor bellowed, “or you will lose your privilege to be here and you will be ejected!”
For a moment, the room was entirely still, and the only sound was the light scratching of Gvtaren’s pen on paper. She stopped quickly when she realized she might draw attention to herself. Her heart was pounding. This was precisely the kind of interaction she was hoping to witness, and the last thing she wanted to do was alert the others to her presence, thereby disrupting their natural behavior. She tried to make herself smaller in her seat, and waited quietly.
Just then, as if on cue, the door to the chamber swung open and the entire team of Chippewa Chachulacas bounced in in their bright silver and blue uniforms, four of them carrying between them an enormous sheet cake decorated as a blue-and-silver sportsing field with a wobbling bird perched atop it.
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the mousey-haired Councilmember began to clap her hands.
“Oh hurrah!” She cried out in a small voice. The rest of the Councilmembers joined her and soon all were cheering for the victorious Chachalacas who, taking their cue, began to trot around the room with the cake, hi-fiving the people sitting near the aisles and chanting some sportsing song that no-one else knew the words to.
The man at the podium just stood there. As the Chachalacas neared the far end of the room, he turned to his daughter who beckoned him back to his seat with a look of disbelief. He walked back to her, and the two just stood there for a moment before picking up their things and walking toward the exit.
Gvtaren sniffed the air. There was that smell again. It wasn’t fear, but something else.
The cake was being set down on a hastily cleared space on the great curved table, and the young intern worked quickly to carve it up. The Chachalacas and Councilmembers gathered in an uneasy huddle around the cake. The Council Elder went first, grabbing a great fistful and stuffing it into his mouth.
“Mmmmmmm….!” The Elder gave a thumbs up to the cake in his mouth, then spread his hands out over the cake to indicate that the others might now have some too. Gvtaren watched as the junior members hung back while the more senior members got first pick.
From the front of the huddle, the intern gave a yelp and bent down, clutching his ear.
“He’s not sure where the nip to his ear came from,” Gvtaren scribbled quickly, “but he’s learned an important lesson. It will be a long time before this youngster tries again for a corner slice.”
The people who filled the seats in front of the long curved table watched silently as the Councilmembers and the sportsing team vied for position at the feed. The guards looked nervously between themselves, adjusting their positions slightly but unsure what to do. A few of the people in chairs began to get up and quietly leave the chamber.
There was a snarl and Gvtaren tried in vain to identify the source. She continued scribbling. Pieces of cake were now flying in the air above what could only be described as a melee. Yelps and snarls filled the air, as everyone dove into the remains of the cake, oblivious to status and rank. The intern, Gvtaren noted, was hunkered under the table, trying in vain to lick his wounded ear. Just out of curiosity, she began looking around for the nearest exit.
She heard a cry and looked back just in time to see the Council Elder wrestling one of the last pieces of cake from the hands of the lion’s-mane Councilmember – whose impeccably coiffed frame was now splattered with blue and white frosting… and possibly, Gvtaren noted in her pad… blood.
She could see that the guards were frightened now and did not know what to do. Finally, one of them took charge and strode up to one of the microphones on the table – the one farthest from the frenzy.
“Alright, everyone!” He bellowed out to the remaining crowd of citizens who sat frozen in their seats. “Please stand up and file out of the room in an orderly manner!”
People around Gvtaren began to scramble for their belongings and stumbled for the exits. Gvtaren made motions of gathering her things, but no real effort to evacuate: Her job was to record what was happening here and she wanted to be able to capture as much of it as she could. She continued scribbling as she pretended to look for her purse beneath the seats in front of her.
“Come on, everyone! Out!” The guards were now walking through the aisles, hurrying people out of the room.
From Gvtaren’s position on the floor, she could see that the Councilmember with the lion’s-mane hair had joined the intern below the table up on the platform, and was nursing her wounds. At first, Gvtaren was confused that the woman had given up so easily, but then she remembered something. She nodded and muttered to herself “of course, of course…”
“Miss! You need to leave now!” A guard stood directly above her, and Gvtaren knew that she could stay no longer. She scribbled down a few last notes before being forced from the chamber:
“The female cowers on the ground, knowing at some level that she must conserve her energy so that she can nurse her young – that they may one day grow strong enough to rip the head from the Council Elder and in this way take his place…”
“Keep moving please! Or you will be forcibly ejected!”
“…as has been the custom for generations.”
(This account is fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)