The town car slowly pulls to a stop in front of the building, under the porte-cochère.
I don’t get out.
The building itself is a massive pile of stone and ornamented windows, a former palace of a former duke of a former regime that was overthrown in a former century by peasants who are still enslaved by the parents who send their precious young daughters to this place.
“But Father,” I replay the conversation in my head. “I don’t understand. I don’t want to go there – I want to be with you.”
“Your education requires it.”
“I – have I not learned my lessons well?”
A rare smile pulls at his lips. “Yes, Daughter. You have learned all the subjects put to you – through computers, through tutors, even by me.” The smile is distinctly there. I treasure it. “But there are other lessons that must be experienced, not simply related.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, you do not. And that is why you must go.”
I sigh, gather the scant belongings I am allowed to carry, while one of father’s agents – a large man named Roche, with a bald head, who has said perhaps three words during our entire trip from the airport – goes around to the back of the car to get out my bags.
“Move among them. Learn of their pettiness, their intrigues, their blind spots, their sense of entitlement. Become one of them, even as you learn of the weaknesses against which you can one day strike.”
“Perhaps not all of them are bad. I might even find – a friend --?”
The words turn into a question as Father’s smile vanishes, his face clouding. “You speak of foolish sentimentality, child. I had thought you wiser than this. No, none of them are worthy of even attempts at such affection. None know the cause in their hearts, as I do – as I thought you did.”_
“Yes – Father. I understand. I will not be weak.”_
“This, too, is why you must do this – to learn this lesson well, to discern the lies, the self-flattery, the self-delusion behind even the softest of their hearts. Hold yourself apart from them, daughter. Learn of them. Do not dare become one of them.”_
“For how long?”_
“For as long as it takes._”
I have my assignment. I take a deep breath, ease my face, wipe away the foolish tears, smooth out the unfamilar skirt around my legs, and when Roche opens the door beside me, I step out, as prim and proper and pampered as any of the other young ladies attending the new session at the École Saint-Michel L’archange.
* * *
The Range Rover pulls into the village in the Central Province of Zambia, after a dismal flight into Livingstone, and a spine-jarring bush plane hop across half the country, then the long trip cross-country in the Rover to the small village near, but not in, Kafue National Park.
The sight is not promising. The village is dried mud structures, the rooftops thatched grass, with enclosures to keep in goats and chickens, what few there are, and to protect against wildlife that still ranges out of the protection of the parks, past the safari hunting camps, and preys on anything it finds wandering.
Fields nearby are under cultivation, though not richly, watered by a small pond on a dammed up creek; that pond itself turns a waterwheel which, by a few wires running to some of the huts, provides electricity.
The people are thin – not famine-victim horrors, but clearly undernourished. Most are dressed in dull, worn t-shirts and khakis, discarded surplus from Europe and Asia and America, barefoot or in ragged sneakers. They watch the Rover as it pulls up to the one building that looks like it might withstand a major storm – a rectangular cinderblock structure with a corrugated steel roof. A wooden cross is wired above its door.
_“You have learned the ways of wealth and privilege, Daughter. Now you learn the consequences of such to the people of this planet.”
“I was only a among them for a few months, Father. I --”
“Long enough to see their corruption. Not long enough to be corrupted – I hope.”
“You will be working in the village of Namketa, serving as an aid to a missionary couple there, helping to teach the children, assisting the villagers with their tasks.”
“And my actual assignment, Father?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Very good. To see first-hand the devastating results of Western Colonialism, of imposition of culture and pacifying religion upon subject peoples, the use of economic policy to enforce poverty to restrain the populace.”
I have learned more than one lesson. “Will I find any who – might be worthy of the struggle, Father?”
“It is possible. The fields of Africa breed discontent and revolutionaries, but they are too often seeking personal gain over the greater cause. Do not expect to forge such bonds, Daughter.”
“And the missionaries?”
“A pious couple from England, seeking to create productive, compliant proles for the West to further exploit.” Disgust drips off his words. “Serve them outwardly, but feel free to – test their composure and acceptance of their deity’s will through what acts of mischief you can work undetected.”
“Indeed, should you find opportunity to sabotage the material wealth of the village, what little there is, pursue it. Breaking down the social structure, especially one one warped by the colonial experience, is critical to the ultimate end of reforming all society.”
“But won’t that cause hardship to the very people we seek to --?”
“All birth is difficult, Daughter. Learn this lesson well: even the victims of the oligarchies cannot be counted upon as allies. Indeed, in their clutching for the comforts of their oppressors, they, too, may need to be counted as enemies, or as sacrifices for the greater good.”
I have spotted potential infrastructure targets – hardly a challenge, except in how to effect it so as not to be the target of retribution.
The missionary couple have come to the door of their church / schoolhouse to greet me, as I descend from Range Rover. I try to ignore their smiles as they and the class of students they are teaching welcome me.
I have my assignment. I do not expect I will be there long, and I am correct. But long enough to learn the names of those whose trust I will betray.
* * *
The police van pulls up to the iron gates in front of the large block on the outskirts of the city. “Военная академия Жукова” reads the sign over the gate. Zhukov Military Academy. The doors from my compartment are locked, so I do not make any move. There is none – for the moment – to make.
_“You have disappointed me, Daughter.”
“I told you there would be consequences to your actions, to your disobedience.”
I am silent.
He raises an eyebrow.
“Misunderstanding – misjudgment – is not disobedience, Father. I did not willfully disobey --”
“It is irrelevant, Daughter. Being able to understand orders, to discern their meaning and to comply, is the least that I expect of you. That you fail to understand that only underscores the lack of discipline you have gained over your years.”
I cringe inwardly at his use of the word “discipline,” but he continues, “I believe further education is necessary. Education that I have neither the time nor inclination to personally oversee.”
“As you see fit, Father.”
“You will be sent to a certain institution recommended by one of my soldiers. He assures me that discipline is the least of the lessons you will learn there. For however long that is.”
“Have I an assignment, Father, beyond learning to discern the true meaning of the orders you give?”
“Curbing your insolence one be one assignment, though whether that is yours or that of the_ Komendant _remains to be seen. To brush up on your Russian, and other eastern Slavic tongues, perhaps. To survive, certainly.”
“Certainly, Father. Shall I try to make friends there? Are there potential allies I should seek to court? Anyone who might be useful to the cause?”
He eyes me. “Your path to survival is your own to carve. If you find allies, be certain you hold the ultimate strength in the relationship. If you find anyone of use, then use them. But you will survive, I have no doubt. You are willful, and undisciplined, but your spirit is strong, and you are the daughter of Achilles Chin. That is what will bring you through to safety.”
I say nothing.
“Go. Report to Del Santos. He is making the arrangements.”
I bow, and take my leave, unwilling to trust my tongue not to get me into deeper trouble._
The police van door slides open, and one of the two politseyskiye drags me out by my shackles. Another man in military fatigues is there, beside a metal door next to the gate. The other cop reads from some paperwork. “Remanded into your custody, Prisoner 47-773483, for military discipline and rehabilitation, per court order this date, yadda-yadda, it’s all in the paperwork, Ivan.”
“Da,” the man in fatigues says, looking at the clipboard he’s handed. “Seems a bit scrawny for legal age here.”
“There’s a problem?” the cop holding me asks.
“No. One way, or the other, she’ll grow up.”
I have my assignment. I have no alternative but to pass; whatever my father’s wishes, I will not fail.
* * *
The black SUV pulls into the “Visitor Parking” space, but even after the engine is turned off, nobody in the vehicle exits.
“Just so we’re clear,” Agent Parker says, “You are on a short leash, Miss Chin – excuse me, Miss Chan.”
I smile. “Now I wish I’d chosen something more imaginative.”
“Don’t. Imagination is what got your father – and you – into quite a lot of trouble. In any case, your parole is provisionally accepted. Break it and you’ll never see the light of day again. I mean that quite literally.”
“If it means I’ll keep a pure, pale complexion like yours, I might be tempted, Agent Parker.”
“Pale will be one word for it. You’ve been offered a tremendous chance, Alycia. Don’t throw it away.”
I cock my head. “Do I get to make friends?” My lips are smiling, but my voice isn’t.
“As long as you don’t break any assets,” she replies, her tone dry, “then knock yourself out, kid.” A pause. “I’d offer advice on the matter, but I’ve dealt with enough cases of abnormal child psychology to know that it would most likely backfire on me.”
“Most likely,” I say with a smile. “And any other provisions around my parole --?”
“Are as we discussed.” Parker raises an eyebrow. “Be a good girl, Miss Chan. It’s a brand new day for you; rise above others’ expectations.” I merely nod, and she, adds, sharply, “Are we good?”
I have my assignment. Though, for once, it’s not for my father. That feels more than a bit odd – but also liberating, even if I’m hardly free.
“Positively virtuous,” I assure her. “Trust me, I’ve always looked forward to the first day of school.”
author: *** Dave H.