15th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Shaila Dominance – Outskirts of Bika, southern Shaila, near Mamlakh border.
“It’s time to go Elea, wake up.”
Leander felt his uncle’s knobby wooden cane rubbing against his cheek.
He heard his dead name being spoken, and he thought to ask for a few more minutes of sleep, but he knew the circumstances would no longer permit it.
“I’ll be right out, uncle,” Leander moaned, turning over in the long basket that had been his bed. Many years ago he fit perfectly, but now he was taller, and his lean brown body almost doubled over to fit inside the basket. He heard the thick, beaded curtain clinking as his uncle walked out of the wagon to give him room to make himself ready.
Leander pulled himself up to a stand by the wooden beams running across the wall of the wagon. He took a mango from a nearby basket and nibbled on it while searching around the wagon for some men’s clothes. He threw on a shirt, at first, and a coat over it, and he buttoned both half the way up – then as he remembered, looking into the mirror.
He undid his shirt again, took a roll of bandages, and bound his breasts down with the bandages. They were not very big, thankfully, and he could bind them nearly flat with the bandages. It was uncomfortable – it hurt a bit. But it was all that he could do to them.
Leander looked over himself again and felt pleased.
He was confident in how he looked. Over the past two years, as he had started to feel a certain wrongness with his body and the way people saw him, he had started to make some changes. He had kept his dark hair shorter, to the bottom of his jaw. He had done harder work, and gotten, at least in his own eyes, a bit more muscular and taller. He had hid under a lot of coats and thick pants. It had been a journey of discoveries – nobody in the caravan felt the ways he did, and he had been reluctant to seek their help.
He was right to be cautious – they had started to think he was strange.
Until the past few days, they had kept that to themselves.
But he was overjoyed now, even in light of recent events. He felt so confident, in fact, that he chose not to wear his uncle’s coat anymore. He would not hide himself under layers of thick clothes. He was now a man, a free man, and he would walk without shame.
Leander wrapped the coat around his waist instead, after zipping up a pair of long pants and lacing up some boots that felt a size too big for him. But they were his boots now, and his coat, and his shirt. He was a man, in more ways than one. He would finally leave the caravan and his familiar lifestyle behind, to live with the Ayvartans – the communists. Though he had no choice in the matter, the change of scenery felt proper to him.
His uncle pushed through the beaded curtain again. He embraced Leander, and patted him in the back. He was one of the older, bigger men in the caravan, said to be strong enough to stop a rhinoceros from charging, and yet he had the gentlest face when he looked upon Leander. Tears welled in his eyes as he beheld his new nephew ready to leave.
“Leander.” Leander said sternly.
“Yes. Leander.” He nodded. “Listen. I’m sorry, about everything. Had I known how they would react, damn it, I would have just smuggled you out to the communists myself. You don’t deserve this treatment and it is my fault, because I advised you to tell the people. It was my fault you were humiliated like that. I should have known better.”
Leander smiled. “I don’t care about the caravan, uncle. Besides, it worked, didn’t it? They gave me a man’s way out of here. I was not ever going to become anyone’s bride.”
“I just wish you hadn’t had to feel all those glares.” His uncle said. “To hear all the nasty things they said. I think our traditions are important – but nobody should force you to marry anyone, or to be anything you don’t want. Now you’re out there all by yourself, and I feel like I could have done more to protect you.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I’ll be fine. I’ve heard that the communists give lodging and food and clothes to people for free. I know I can go to their village and live there. I’ll be fine.”
They embraced again. It would likely be the last time.
The instant they let go, Leander was on his way, and he was out for good. He climbed off the back of the wagon, without a traveling bag or money or anything but his half-eaten mango. He hoped that the generosity of the communists was as great as the tales his former friends had told him. He walked away from the circle of wagons, leaving their little clearing in the woods. He felt the stares from the women and the girls folding and washing clothes, and from the men chopping wood for fire, following his every step. They watched him leave with vicious interest. He could hear mumbling all around him as he went.
Past the line of bushes and trees, into the wood, the caravan and its nomadic people disappeared behind him. It was as though Leander had pushed past another beaded curtain, and left so much of himself behind. He could not hear them anymore and thought it unlikely that he would again. There was soon another transition as he saw the road up ahead.
He walked out of the woods, passing from forest to field. He stepped onto the dirt road and began to follow it to the village of Bika. It was very big, for a countryside Ayvartan village, with a multitude of log houses and a few newer, taller concrete buildings that he could easily see from the road. Their caravan had passed through Bika before.
Leander felt as though the sun was hovering directly over his head, and he sweated profusely while crossing the dirt road, flanked by log houses on either side. Sparse trees planted (or perhaps, simply left standing) around each block gave him a temporary respite from the heat. Whenever he took to the shade he felt a cool, comforting breeze. Had the sun not been so furious he would have said it was good weather overall.
There were a few people out on the street as well, looking energetic and untroubled, carrying little baskets or boxes to and fro with food wrapped in paper. Most of the villagers were probably still working – he recalled that the “big” industries in Bika were textiles and wooden construction materials. Interspersed with the log houses there were a few big concrete buildings with tin shutters, where this work probably happened.
After asking around, he was pointed toward the big red and gold building in the middle of the village, and he made for it as fast as he could. There was a sign outside with the Ayvartan government’s coat of arms – a menacing reptile, a hydra, with multiple long necks ending in heads that grasped around the words For Bread, For Cotton, For Home.
Past the doors there was a reception office with two benches. A long desk accessible through a little door separated the front of the reception office from the more spacious back. It was a refreshingly cool room, well lit with electric torches. Spinning fans in the ceiling drove out the heat. At the desk a young, dark-skinned woman in an elaborate red and gold dress and hat greeted him. Her hair was tied into several long braids, which themselves were gathered into a ponytail with a gold ribbon. Leander bowed his head to her and reached for his own hat to tip, only to discover he had brought none.
She smiled nonetheless.
“Welcome, comrade. What do you require?” She asked.
“Ah, well, I don’t know if I have the right place.” Leander said, feeling foolish. He had never spoken to an official before – he wondered if she had more pressing business than to listen to his troubles. “I’m from out of town, you see. I need a place to stay, and some clothes, and other things like that. I have nothing. I’m more than willing to work for it.”
“This is an office of the Commissariat of Civil Affairs.” She replied, and beamed even more brightly his way. “If you’ve nothing to your name but those clothes then you are in the right place.”
“I am ready to work for a home and bread, you see.” Leander hurriedly said.
“Work is not necessary for a minimum of lodging, food and clothes.”
Leander nodded. He marveled at her words – work was unnecessary? He still planned to work. He would have felt too guilty taking from the communists without doing anything in return. In the caravan you had to work or do chores or something to get any food, unless you were a little child. He was too used to it. It was a man’s place, he told himself, to repay his debts and to help make things and do things for his community. But he was astonished that she sounded so willing to feed him and clothe him, and give him a place to stay.
From one of the shelves along the back of her desk, the woman produced a thick, black, leather-bound ledger, which she opened to a fresh page. There were many fields in the ledger page. One in particular evoked a small sense of dread in Leander, but he would tackle it when they got to it. The receptionist urged him to take a stool from one of the corners and drag it over to sit on. They looked over the paper together.
“What name do you wish to register in the Bika township?”
“Leander Gaurige is my name.” He said.
“A lovely name. You can call me Gadi, comrade Gaurige.”
She jotted the name down with her ink pen. “I hope not to presume too much, comrade, but you are a Zigan, are you not? If you register, we will have to ask you stay in the town for at least a year, and until any work season you have started with a state company is completed. Is that acceptable to you, Leander?”
“I’m a Zigan, but it is acceptable. I have left my caravan.”
“You do not have to leave permanently. We respect your nomadic lifestyle. We just ask you give us some of your time before leaving, you see, for administrative–”
“Ah, it’s irrelevant, ma’am.” Leander interrupted. “They don’t want me.”
“Oh, I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Gadi wrote down a few things in the big fields near the bottom of the paper, and Leander wondered if her handwriting was just difficult to follow, or if his Ayvartan was slipping. He spoke it well, he thought, and the older folks had taught him to read it as well, and to write it in big, clumsy strokes. But he had a hard time parsing her script, and she seemed to write a lot of acronyms and contractions. Whoever read and processed these letter for the government probably understood, but Leander did not. Eventually she turned to face him again, smiling, and put her finger on a dreaded little blank.
“You wish to register as a male person, correct?”
Leander felt his heart thrashing. “Yes.” He said.
Without any protest, the receptionist put down a D for Dume or male.
“If you ever want this changed, you can return to this office and ask. Administratively, it will take some time to be processed all the way to Solstice. You can also change your name, which takes even longer to process, sadly; but it will be reflected eventually if you ask for it.” Gadi said. Leander wondered if this was something she mechanically told to everyone registering. Regardless, he felt a huge burden lift from his back.
“I think I’m good for now.” Leander said.
Gadi nodded her head in acknowledgment. She bid Leander to wait a moment, and took the ledger to an adjacent room behind a door. He heard a few noises issue from the room, like the whistling of steam and stamping of metal on a surface.
When next the little door opened Gadi had a few additional papers with her, one sheet of which she deposited in a box. She put away the ledger, and handed Leander a piece of paper – it was a copy of everything they had written on the ledger.
“In case you want some proof of your registration.” She said.
From a drawer she then handed Leander several tickets of different colors, some small as those one would get from having gone to a film theater, others the size of business cards. They were made of cheap paper, not even like a treasury note of the sort one exchanged for coins. Each ticket had the stamp of the Ayvartan government, and instructions in small print that described what they traded towards – ration card, housing card, goods card.
All of these tickets did not look like the cards he saw other Ayvartans carrying.
He asked about this.
“Those tickets are traded for the real cards.” Gadi said. “You can go to the Civil Canteen for a ration card, and you get a housing card for your room in one of the lodges, or from someone with a family home that has a room to spare and is willing to let you stay. You can get a shopping card from the msanii, the artisan market, or from the state-run general store in the village. Oh!” Gabi seemed to remember something suddenly.
“Wait one more moment, please.”
Gadi turned and looked in the back of her little room. She bent over a table, pulled a little ticket from a drawer and wrote on it. She then returned to the desk and pressed this ticket into Leander’s hands along with the rest. “This is a ticket for a clinic card. You don’t have to work, but if you wish to register for work, you will be asked to have a check-up at the local clinic, so if you’re eager you should do this as soon as you can.”
Leander quivered inside. He was not eager for someone to look over his body.
Gadi wrapped her hands around his own, and around the little tickets and vouchers.
She seemed to have noticed his reticence and smiled reassuringly.
“Please do not be afraid to go to the clinic. They’ll understand your situation.”
Leader blinked, and smiled a little awkwardly. Again he wondered if she just said that whenever she thought there was some unspecified trouble, or if she said it to people like the Zigan, or if she was saying it to him specifically because she knew. He had been hesitant the moment he took the clinic voucher. How could they understand, when even he did not, when he had so little language for what he felt? But perhaps it was safe to go.
He took all of the vouchers and put them into his pockets.
“If you choose to sign up for work, you can return here and I will give you a stipend equal to a week’s pay, to help you settle.” Gadi said. “From there you will receive wages for your labor, which will be disbursed by your union or cooperative according to council regulations, and which may be adjusted with the season and your work ethic. If not, you will receive a smaller monthly stipend instead.”
“And food, clothing and lodging is still provided?” Leander asked.
“It is everyone’s right to be lodged, fed and dressed.” Gadi assured.
“Alright.” Leander said, slightly bewildered. “Is there anything more?”
“No, that should be all. I look forward to seeing you again.”
Gadi thanked him for his patience and sent him on his way, her encouraging smile never fading from her face. That was all the deliberation necessary – it felt like only minutes since he passed through the door a vagrant, and now he was out the door again a citizen, with papers and prospects. He had distantly heard about the communists and the way they lived nowadays, but never could he have imagined they were true.