Mona is sprawled across the park sofa. She can see the wisp of a cloud threaded into the blue of the sky. She can see the tree branches moving. The silver birch leaves shimmer like coins. The vast cedar holds out its many black arms for birds to rest on. The cypress points downward; the neighborhood children used its low shadowy branches to sit on when they played “house.” They had many plastic toys, but what they loved best were the leftover ice lolly sticks, which they called “little people.” Mona used to play it too. They drew two dot eyes and various expressions to make different characters, dressed them in sweets wrappers, and were diligent about collecting wrappers for outfits. They made lunch for the little people out of crushed leaves and grass, mashing the ingredients with stones and pond water and soil.
The park had once been the wondrous forest of Mona’s life. She spent hours, all her free time, hiding in bushes and sitting on tree branches. The cypress was still one of her favorites, for its branches didn’t resist her, offered themselves to her. The children had collected discarded bits of furniture from various local dumps, and arranged it in the bushy, concealed part of the park, creating a living room of sorts. There was an old sofa, an armchair with residues of pink flowers on the parts that had not been worn out by sitting bodies, and a small coffee table with a picture of a man watching the seashore. They sat around playing house and their roles shifted from parents to children to animals and back. That was when Mona was little. She would go out in the early afternoons, when everyone was having their prescribed rest time and children were not allowed to play outside, from three to five. It was called “house order” in the meaning of being “orderly,” and not “to be ordered,” though in reality the residents were ordered not to go outside. If children did go outside and made noise between the designated hours, disgruntled neighbors emerged on balconies or descended the stairs in slippers, hair messy and mouths billowing with rage. They yelled at them to go home, or threatened to call their parents. So Mona would sneak out and go down to the park when no one was outside, and she would sit in silence or play voicelessly, mouthing the dialogue between the little people. Daddy sometimes shouted; Mommy shouted back. The children sat in a corner, quiet. Or she would lie down on the sofa and watch the canopy of trees above her.
They say that trees are alive; not just in the way that can be observed, with the leaves growing and falling off. But that they are alive with families and communities, and that they are intelligent. And if they are damaged, or their leaves start to get chewed on by say, a caterpillar, or a grazing giraffe, some trees give off a toxic scent that repels the animal eating it and warns the other trees to release the same scent and defend themselves. Mona read this in a book. Trees, it said, work together. When they are friends, their branches grow as far as they can to touch each other, as if with fingertips. There was such a union, a love union, really, between a linden and an oleander tree on a street in her mother’s village. The linden grew in a garden on the left side of the street, the oleander on the right, and their branches stretched above the garden walls and bent toward each other, their leaves touching mid-air, mid-street, making an arch of pink and yellow flowers, and they perfumed the air with gentle affection. They held hands, but never went any further toward each other, for they knew that the light and the air on the opposite side was already needed, and taken. And that is what the President instructs us to do, thought Mona. To work together. To build our community, to honor our families, and to protect the unity of our country. Mona had felt this, the drive, the need, the meaning of the revolutionary project of the Nation alive in her breast. But lately, she had other things on her mind, and they flooded everything, and she could do little to fight it.
Ruben often sat Mona down to tell her the story of the Nation. He had told her this story many times—he had told her that the streets of her hometown were mostly made of gray stone, and there was an ochre mud mixture that was used for some of the facades. Ruben had told her, at bedtime when she was small, and at lunch when she grew, that the first road leading into town was paved when the President announced his first visit. Before that, the roads were dusty bare ground, trodden by mules and wooden clogs. Upon hearing of the visit, Ruben said, the town council decided that ten young local men should go to the hill above town, the hill facing the direction of the newly paved road, and spell out in white chalk rocks—dug out from the earth around the city, the rugged earth that brimmed with nothing but stone—We Love You, President. One of the youth chosen for the task was Ruben.
They were heavy rocks, Ruben said, and the youth sweated and strained as they worked. They had to ensure that the words were all leveled equally, that the “We” wasn’t bigger than “You.” It took a whole week. The sun was a mallet on their foreheads, the skin on their necks turning into copper leather. There was a small delay when they discovered a spelling mistake; instead of Love they had written “Luve.” Luckily, the town administrator, who looked up from the town center every afternoon to see how the work was going, noticed, and the mistake was quickly corrected. When their work was done, the young men got a round of handshakes, pats on the back, and a barbecued lunch with beer as their reward. Ruben was always proud of himself for being part of the project, and Mona was proud of Ruben.
The sign stood there like a focused thought, Mona thought, and every time anyone gazed round the city that thought would vibrate in their mind. The President was like a divine watcher, the bearer of ultimate values, and that which remained pure when all else became soiled, said Ruben. When Mirza bullies Toni at school, the President loves me, Mona thought. When Ana rejects Edin, the President still loves me. When Ruben and Diogen fight over Diogen’s life choices and his needing to “pull his socks up,” the President still loves us, Mona thought.
At school, Mona learned stories about the President’s childhood, about his modest home in a village in the mountains and saw photographs of him cutting keys with a smile, galaxies of sparks flying off the iron wheel. The President repeatedly spoke of the need to look after the country, and each other, to obey parents and teachers, and to keep the country’s unity as the utmost priority. Brotherhood and Unity, Brotherhood and Unity, Brotherhood and Unity. School children sang songs that promised to never stray off his path, songs that promised that he could count on everyone to fight for peace, should the need arise. One of the songs that Mona was fond of, went:
Some doubt our conviction and think that we are going in the wrong direction,
because we listen to vinyl records and play rock,
But somewhere in us sits battle’s flame
and I tell you what I know well:
You can count on us.
Each classroom and each official space in the country had a picture of the President on the wall. On her first day of school, as pairs of students sat in rows of desks, the teacher came in to class and announced: “Children. Some of you may have heard of God, and that he exists. Well, he doesn’t.” He then went to distribute chocolate bars, one per child. No more was said. That same day, Mona read a story in her school book about two boys who fought over who the President was gazing at from one of those pictures. Each was insisting “me, me,” until the teacher came up and said, “Don’t fight. The President is watching over us all.”
In his photographed presence, school children were not to wear hats, nothing that would cover their heads. They were not allowed to chew gum, because that was both rude and stank of rotten capitalism, something that lived outside of their borders and bore a fiendish mix of fascination, fantasy, and loathing, according to their teacher. They were taught that the struggle of their forebearers was what brought them to where they were, and they had to honor that struggle, always. The struggle that had built the Nation. The struggle that meant ethnic, national, and religious differences had been overcome in the name of building the Nation. God could be worshipped, if one insisted on it, but it was not acceptable to feel that one’s God was better than someone else’s. Brotherhood and Unity, above all. The Nation was forged out of the antifascist struggle, the struggle for equality. The only country to have defended itself by its own forces, Ruben said. The only European country to have had no foreign army on its soil at the end of World War II, teachers said. Mona knew of these struggles. Understood that she was part of them, that she came from the bodies of those who had been on the edge of death in order to provide that freedom to all. When she went to see her very old grandmother as a small child, Mona observed the crucified Christ on her wall, with the picture of the President right next to it. Christ bled too, there was never a smiling Christ, but the President was sometimes smiling. Mona had even seen a picture of the President sunbathing, looking very relaxed.
The Nation watched films about brave warriors who traipsed snowy mountains for liberty and got so frostbitten that they had to cut off each others’ toes, with nothing but homemade brandy to anesthetize them. The Nation bit their lips as the movie soldiers applied army knives to each others’ purple toes, and each time they prayed to a God they knew didn’t exist that the movie should end differently. They professed love from the hilltop. And they held struggle in their hearts.