The Island Country

by by Doreen St. Félix

illustration by by Becca Levinson

The prime minister awoke without dreams. He looked out his window, stone-framed and small, to make certain he had risen before the sun. Plain, his head touched the ceiling. Three short steps separated him from the closet. As he lifted his body off the bed, his palms left a stain of whiteness on the quilt, which was covered and colored with dust.

He dressed solemnly, as if a grand bishop, preparing a sermon he was to deliver to a mass of drunken believers. In uncertain light, he dressed precisely.

He sniffed the yellowed collar of his once-white linen shirt and, satisfied, slipped it over his head. He fastened the waist of his navy slacks with three rusted safety pins. When he bent down to buckle first the left and then the right sandal, his knees cracked. Dim as the movement was, the sandals conjured up a cloud of dust from the dirt floor. His coughing fit disturbed the Sunday silence of the room. It seemed to him that this cough lasted longer than he was used to so he swallowed a bit of rationed saliva to soothe his throat. The prime minister’s only pair of underwear had a large hole.

Even though he had arranged the eight bottles of shoeshine on the window ledge the night before, he still picked up and considered each one. The bottles were black and dry, like his cracked hands. Even at the bottom of the citadel, the sun was strong enough to bleach the paper labels on the bottles, and so the prime minister was careful to make sure of the wax’s colors in the mornings; he could not make a mistake. He picked up and shook the smallest bottle. The liquefied wax made the sound of a muddled ocean. Under the emerging sunlight, he squinted at it like a street doctor squinting at his street medicines. He was happy to see the color was what he had suspected, what he had remembered: midnight black. He noticed an ant scurrying between the other bottles still on the ledge.

For a while he stopped and enjoyed watching the darting thing. The ant moved in all directions, in the way blind women have of moving after their sons have been killed. Before it crawled off the ledge, he caught it with his charred index finger—burnt so completely that the nerves there were dead. As he drowned it in drops of midnight black, he made a mental note to buy a new bottle the next day. The soldier’s pounding at the door made the prime minister jump.

“Prime Minister!”
“Prime Minister, are you a dirty pig?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Prime Minister, do you fuck your mother and jack off to your sister?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Prime Minister!”
“Prime Minister, are you worth less than shit?”
“Yes, I am,” the prime minister replied.

The adolescent soldier pushed the door open, walked to the window, and dumped a bucket of wet dog shit on the prime minister’s head. He angled the bucket in such a way that none of it got on the shoeshine bottles.  Some of the mess got into the open wounds on the prime minister’s hands. Without hurrying, he grabbed the last clean corner of the quilt to quiet his screaming skin. With another corner, dirty from the many mornings before, he wrapped up his eight bottles of shoeshine.

In the next moment, the soldier prodded the prime minister out of the room with a machete pressed against his back. Walking the stone steps to the top of the citadel, heavy with the bottles, was a dull task. Every so often, they paused so the prime minister could hold his sunken chest and cough harshly. Only when they reached the fifteenth landing did the soldier break the silence with a joke:

“It’s time for the old general to get an elevator, no? He should ask his fag friends in Washington, no?”

The soldier pressed the blunt side of the machete deeper in the prime minister’s back for emphasis. The prime minister responded “yes” because he knew the soldier was proud, because he had no choice, because he found it funny. He did not dare turn to his right to look the soldier in the eye. But he thought that from the upward turning of his voice, he might have been smiling.

The stairs curved dramatically into the general’s private bathroom, a space he converted from a conference hall to a grand bathroom for his private use, a space where one year before, he he killed a man wearing a finely-pressed suit. Choked in sweat, the prime minister had watched him from the room’s right corner. The general calmly promised the man he would soon piss where he and his advisors had once signed bills. Then he shot the president in the face.

The bathroom was remarkable; the general’s instincts for design were clean, modern, nearly French. Sunlight leaked into the space. The prime minister regarded the white, dustless expanse of the room, wondered if it grew larger each day. On the sink’s marble countertop was a handled box of cigarettes. A silver lighter with a miniature of their island country’s flag on it. A slim handgun teetering over the counter’s edge. By the steel faucet was a glass bottle of blue-tinted aftershave. Behind the sink, a bathroom maid.

Morning dawn secreted a particular light on these things; their edges were disturbed with a chemical glow. The prime minister could see the final morning dew disappearing from the general’s hands, which were squeezing the taut thighs of the bathroom maid. When the soldier and the prime minister walked in, she was replacing her skirt.
The general snapped his fingers and the soldier and the maid left, the boy with a final jab of his machete and the girl with a stone face.

“Prime minister, kiss your general,” said the general in his purple velvet chair.

The prime minister shuffled across the room, uncertain steps, and placed the quilt full of shoeshine bottles by the general’s feet. His knees cracked again. Suppressing the desperate cough, he leaned his sallow face towards the general’s fat one.

The general slapped him to the ground. “Disgusting. You smell like shit. You are shit.”

The prime minister pushed his dignity to one side and immediately said his “yes.” He massaged his cheek and, with his eyes half-closed, searched for the small plastic bottle of midnight black. He dipped the sponge into the dye until it soaked through to blacken his palms. Tenderly, he began shining the general’s leather shoes, stunning though bathed in the country’s dust. This dust aggravated the something the prime minister had in his throat.

“Do you know where I purchased these shoes?”
“No,” said the prime minister.
“In Los Angeles you idiot,” the general smiled. “In the city of angels.”
“Yes,” said the prime minister. He angled the general’s right foot vertically so that he could use his fingers to get the caked bullet shells out of the sole.

“It is in California, the American state with the most beautiful shape,” said the general. He turned on the lighter. Swiftly, he drew a fiery outline of California in the air. He sighed at his art. The fumes inspired a cough in the prime minister’s throat that he violently swallowed.

“The city of angels,” considered the general, “but my country is the country of gods.”

The prime minister hooked his gaze on the midnight shoes shining before him. Inside, he could feel himself turning purple.

“Yes,” said the prime minister, who then spat at the general, spat on his gleaming right shoe. The saliva was not a substantial amount, seeing how he had had an interminable cough that day, but it still trailed off the Italian leather, snaking past the sole to the porcelain floor, where it mixed with the grey gunshot residue of the three bullets the general shot into the cowering man’s neck.