Volume 34, Number 3


Chris Klassen

The letter arrived early on Monday morning after a beautiful weekend of long walks and roast pork dinner with potatoes and fresh cabbage from the garden, just picked. The envelope was brown and official, addressed to “Male Resident.” Alex opened it and read silently.

“Dear Sir,” it began. “Your services are required. Please come to the Community Building immediately upon receipt of this letter.” Stamped with a government stamp and dated. That was all. Alex looked up at his wife Dina, young and sweet, who was serious.

“What does it say, Alex?”

“It says I have to go.”

“Can you stay a bit longer though? For one more cup of tea? How will they know if you just stay a bit longer?”

“They will know. I have to go.”

Alex stood up, folded the letter and put it in the inner pocket of his grey woolen jacket which he needed to protect himself from the autumn wind. He slipped on his thin cloth shoes, walked over to Dina and embraced her.

“Will you be back soon?” Dina asked.

“I don't know,” Alex answered softly. “Maybe.” He walked to the front door of their small tidy house. He loved the house. It only had space for a table and two chairs, a bed in the corner and a little cooking area for Dina. A few pots and pans hung from a wooden rack. A stone fireplace provided heat. They were comfortable and satisfied and grateful.

Alex opened the door and looked back. “I have to go,” he said. “I'm so sorry.” Dina nodded and he left. She watched him walk down the little dirt path and turn away, then closed the door and returned to the table. Some dishes were dirty from the cabbage.

On the gravel path, heading into the town centre, Alex walked solitarily with his unwelcome thoughts that intruded. A few other men, other “Male Residents,” were going in the same direction. And more, across the street, doing the same, walking with heads down and hands in pockets, deliberately, anxious and fatalistic.

They funneled together into the queue at the front of the Community Building. No one spoke or exchanged glances. They stood obediently, shuffling steps taking them closer to the front door when space allowed. It rained lightly. An annoying wind blew.

Eventually, cold and damp from the rain, Alex arrived at the entrance, walked through. A young clinical-looking clerk in olive-green military attire sat at a table, looked up at Alex blankly, as he had looked at all the previous “Male Residents,” and said stiffly, “Papers.” Alex passed him his ID card and the letter he had received earlier. The clerk scanned and stamped them both, handed them back to Alex and motioned for him to proceed down the hall to join the next silent queue. There were no clocks. Fluorescent ceiling lights hummed monotonously like bugs. Off-white walls and an off-white tiled floor with cracks and yellow nicotine stains. Four stone-faced soldiers stood guard, two on each side of the hall, unblinking, holding their rifles. The queue went between them. Alex passed by, looking only straight ahead.

His destination, after the exceedingly slow and bureaucratic procession, was an interview room. Another official, slightly older than the clerk at the front of the building, in similar military dress, sat at a small desk. A guard with a rifle stood nearby. “Papers,” the official said. Alex presented them. The official stamped them. 

“Are you healthy?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Alex replied. The official checked a box on another piece of paper.

“You are between 24 and 50 years old?”

“Yes, sir.” Another check. 

“Are you degenerate in any way?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you love the State?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you promise to defend it at all costs?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Proceed through the next door to the second room on the left.” He handed Alex his papers.

“Can I ask a question, sir? Can I ask what's happening?”

“No, you cannot. Are you doubting us?” the official snapped back, eyes venomous. “You said you love the State and will defend it. Don't question. You have to go.”

“Yes, sir.” Alex nodded and looked down.

Many other “Male Residents” were in the second room on the left, changing out of their clothes, putting on army green uniforms, ill-fitting, itchy and coarse. Alex, at the door, presented his papers again, had them stamped and was handed a folded uniform. 

“Put these on,” the official stated. “Your clothes go in the bin by the wall. You won't be needing them.”

Alex entered the room, found a small amount of space and stripped out of his clothes, surrounded by other men who were following the same instructions. The uniform didn't fit. The pants were too short, too tight at the waist. The shirt, elbow-holed and stained, had extra-long sleeves, down to his fingertips. The cuffs were frayed. It was missing two buttons. There were no military boots and no warm socks. Alex walked to the bin, dropped his clothes and grey jacket into it, and stepped back into his bit of space. When the room was completely full and all its occupants newly-uniformed, an older official, capped and militarily medaled and superior, closed the door and walked to a table at the front, stood behind it stoically, scanning.

“There are undesirables,” he began. “In a town nearby. We have intelligence that is incontrovertible. Enemies of the State. Revolutionaries. Anarchists. Unlike you, they are not loyal.” No one moved. Alex, and everyone, looked straight ahead, at the speaker. “The State cannot rest while enemies plot. We will be proactive and your enthusiastic duty will ensure our success.” No one moved. “Proceed through the door to my left. An official will provide you with your weapons. You have to go. Dismissed.”

The regiment, Alex recognizing his reality, turned in almost unison and shuffled clumsily towards and through the door. Inside, several desks staffed by other military officials, and bins of weapons, varying kinds, against the walls in a perimeter. Alex got in line, watched, walked when appropriate, stood still, stepped again, until he was in front of a desk and heard the demand for “Papers,” which were scanned, stamped, and returned.

“Have you experience with rifles?” the official asked. 

“No, sir,” Alex replied.

“Combat knives?”

Again, “No, sir.”

“Swords? Revolvers? Bayonets?”

“No, sir.”

“Then get a stick. From the bin in the corner.” He pointed. “You can swing a stick, yes?”

“Yes sir. But I have never hurt anyone.”

“You are with the stick brigade.”


“You are with the stick brigade,” the official said louder with impatience. “When you get to the town nearby, you are to defend the State with your stick.”

Fearfully, recognizing his overstepping-ness, Alex said timidly, “Sir, I have family in the town nearby. And some friends. I have never hurt anyone.”

“Are you loyal?” the official screamed. The other newly-recruited “Male Residents” flinched as one and stared at the floor.

“Yes, sir,” Alex muttered. 

“Don't mutter! Are you loyal?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then recognize the honour of your duty and get your stick. And don't disrespect me, understood? Comrades,” the official addressed the room, “any further disrespect, from any of you, will result in imprisonment. Is this understood?” Silence. “Good. Now, with your weapons, proceed outside, to the yard, to the buses. Board a bus. Sit with your weapon. Stay still, stay silent. When you get to the town nearby, you will exit the bus and defend the State. You will be informed when you have fulfilled your duty in its entirety and can return home. But you will know anyway because there will be no more enemies remaining. Some of you will not make it. Your passing will be honourable, and history will hold you in high regard. You are dismissed. You have to go.”

Outside, already dusk, in harder rain and stronger wind, Alex and the regiment to which he now belonged walked towards the idling buses already waiting for them in the yard. Black smoke sputtered through the tailpipes and into the wet heavy air. The drivers sat in their seats looking forward but none of the doors had been unlocked. For how much time, Alex did not know, the regiment stood, cold and uncomfortable in their ill-fitting soaked uniforms, breathing thick wet air, holding their weapons. Finally, in unison, the doors opened and the men climbed the few steps, entered the buses and sat silently in their wet clothes.

Alex, with his stick, walked to the back of his bus, past a soldier menacingly holding a rifle and glaring, to the second last row, and sat. He thought of Dina, her isolation, her new reality of aloneness. He was hungry and thirsty and lonely too, already. He wondered about sustenance, shelter and basic and unavoidable bodily functions. There had been no mention of anything, no instruction on survival. Asking would have been disloyal and dangerous. He had heard about the camps where traitors languished. A neighbour he recognized sat next to him carrying a sword. They did not greet each other nor look into each other's eyes nor make a sound. They stared at the floor, at their thin wet non-military cloth shoes and the water dripping from their poorly-fitting pants. Alex heard the bus door close and felt a sluggish momentum. The engine coughed inconsistently, joltingly, and got louder. The buses, in a convoy, turned out of the yard, and began the drive in the dark. Someone sneezed.

Hesitating and nervous, Alex, in an almost inaudible voice, muttered to his neighbour, “I have family in the town nearby. I've never hurt anyone.”

“Shut up,” his neighbour whispered, still staring at his shoes. “We have to go.”