* * *
Chapter 3: The Country of Couples
-Even a Dog Doesn’t Eat-
“Hello, Traveler! Welcome to our country,” the soldier exclaimed. “Here’s a questionnaire you must fill out if you wish to enter. And please, no need to overthink things. Just pick the answers you are immediately drawn to. Follow your heart.”
Without warning, the soldier in the tiny guardhouse before the towering gates handed the traveler a thick bundle of papers. And a pen as well.
The traveler looked down at the papers in her hands, taken aback.
The traveler was in her mid-teens with messy, short black hair. She had large eyes and fair features, and had a pair of goggles hanging from her neck.
She wore a black jacket with a thick belt, from which hung several pouches. Strapped around her right thigh was a hand persuader holster. Inside was a revolver with an octagonal barrel.
“Just me?” asked the traveler. “I want to bring my partner along too,” she said, pointing her thumb at the motorrad propped up behind her. The motorrad was fully laden with bags, a sleeping bag, and travel gear.
“Just you, Traveler. Your name, please?”
“Kino,” Kino replied, and pointed at the motorrad again. “And that’s Hermes.”
“Hi,” Hermes the motorrad piped up from a distance. The soldier gave him a nod.
“Let me greet you once again,” the soldier said. “Welcome to our country. I just need Kino to fill out the questionnaire. It might take a bit of time, but do try to answer all the questions to the best of your abilities. Here, you can use the table and chair.”
“Right. …And I need to fill this out if I want to enter?” Kino asked.
The soldier replied, “That’s correct,” and nodded firmly.
Kino took a seat and began to flip through the pages.
The questionnaire asked her all sorts of things, from her name and age, gender and height, weight, hobbies, favorite foods, favorite colors, favorite and least favorite songs, what she thought of herself, the way she thought, to her sense in fashion.
It also asked what shape she saw in what seemed to be a blotch of spilled ink, what animal she would compare herself to, what she thought of boxing or farming, if she liked children, if she was an early riser, if she liked pets, if she had ever cried at a play or a book, whether she preferred cats or dogs, if she had ever dreamed in color, if she was self-conscious, if she disliked living with the elderly, if she enjoyed gambling, and more.
Kino sighed again and again as she went through the entire questionnaire. Then she handed the completed bundle back to the soldier, who waited with a smile.
The soldier took photos of Kino, saying it was part of entry procedures. One frontal bust shot and one full-body shot. The soldier asked her to smile, but in the photos Kino looked nothing short of indifferent.
“That’s all. Thank you very much.”
Finally, they had permission to enter. The thick, heavy gates opened. Kino smacked Hermes out of his slumber.
By the time they stepped into the gates, the sun was beginning to set. Dark clouds were gathering in the sky.
Kino found a cheap hotel and found herself a place to stay.
Soon it began to rain.
Deciding to stay in for the day, Kino had dinner, showered, and went straight to bed.
The next day, Kino rose at dawn.
The rain had stopped. Kino did light exercises in her room. Then she did persuader drills with Cannon.
She had breakfast at the hotel and smacked Hermes awake, before leaving her luggage in the room and going out to sightsee.
The country was not very large.
It consisted of flat lands surrounded by walls. The city was meticulously planned and filled with austere concrete buildings without a shred of history.
“It’s not that pretty here,” Hermes remarked.
Kino asked a passerby about local attractions. Everyone gave about the same answer.
“Attractions for travelers? Hm…maybe the fact that we have great public security?”
“That’s a tough question. If I had to say…it’s a tough question.”
“We have some great drinks. Oh, you don’t drink? Then I don’t think I can suggest anything…”
“Nope. This country wasn’t founded that long ago, so we’re not exactly a tourist destination.”
Kino rode Hermes through the country with no destination in mind. Eventually she reached the wall and turned back around.
They stopped at an open-air cafe so Kino could take her time with a cup of tea.
After the break, Kino went back to Hermes, whom she had parked by the sidewalk. That was when they heard raised voices.
Kino and Hermes spotted a young couple on a slope leading to the road, arguing loudly. The argument soon escalated into an all-out brawl.
“What’s going on?” Kino wondered, shocked. Hermes sounded amused. “It’s obviously a street fight, Kino. From the looks of the hook combo, I’d say the man’s probably going to win. But the woman’s kicks aren’t too bad either. Oh, hey! That’s a critical hit with the left high kick!”
“I wasn’t asking for a play-by-play…”
“Are you gonna stop them, Kino?”
“I just want them to get out of the way. Maybe I should just talk to them,” Kino said, stepping forward.
“Traveler! What are you doing?”
A young police officer in uniform called from behind, stopping her.
“The police. Perfect timing,” said Hermes.
“It looks like they’re having a fight,” Kino said. “Could you stop them?”
The officer shook his head. “Just leave them be, Traveler.”
“Is that really all right?”
“It certainly is. And I think the fight’s just about over.”
The officer was right. Kino turned to find the couple walking away together, side-by-side.
“There’s something you need to know, Traveler,” said the officer. “If you spot a couple arguing or fighting, you mustn’t try to stop them. No one in this country intervenes in fights between couples—married or not. It always ends before it gets too serious.”
“Really?” Kino asked, surprised. The officer smiled.
“Yes. And even if you were to step in, it wouldn’t do you any good. Please take your time enjoying everything our country has to offer. We have so many things you won’t find anywhere else. If you’ll excuse me, then.”
The officer saluted and left.
“Things like what?” Hermes asked.
Kino had a brief lunch and refueled Hermes. After some deliberation, they decided to finish sightseeing for the day and take time to relax. Kino rode Hermes back to the hotel.
They were waiting at the stoplight when the man in the car next to them suddenly called out.
“Hello there, Traveler!”
He was in his thirties, wearing glasses and a suit with a tie.
“Do you have some time, Traveler? If you do, why not come by my house for some tea? It’s not far—I’m on my way back right now. What do you say? My wife and I would love to hear about your travels and what you think about our country.”
Hermes was all for the idea of visiting, as they had nothing else to do. Kino nodded to the man and said they would follow his car.
The man lived in one of many two-story townhouses lined up together. His wife, a beautiful woman with long hair, came to the door to greet him.
“This here is my wife. Isn’t she gorgeous?” the man said, giving the woman a kiss on the cheek.
“It’s wonderful to meet you two. Welcome to our country,” she said, smiling. Kino greeted her back and introduced Hermes and herself.
The man ushered Kino inside. The woman went around behind her to close the door, when she spotted Cannon holstered on Kino’s thigh. Her eyes widened as she said quietly, “Traveler, you have a persuader with you.”
“Hm? Oh, does it bother you? I’ll put it away immediately,” Kino said apologetically. But the woman smiled and shook her head.
“Not at all. Traveling is dangerous, after all. How long will you be staying in our country?”
“Until tomorrow,” Kino answered. “I’ll most likely be leaving in the morning.”
“I see,” the woman muttered.
The man showed Kino to the dining table and offered her a seat. Kino propped up Hermes on his center stand behind them.
“Could you bring us something to drink, Honey?” the man said to the woman, who was in the kitchen next to the dining room.
“Of course. Give me one minute,” the woman chirped.
The man turned to Kino. “It’s a pleasure to have you over, Traveler. We almost never get the chance to meet outlanders here. What do you think about our country?”
“It’s boring,” Hermes said immediately.
The man chuckled. “You’re very honest, I see. And you’re right. We’re a boring country. No spectacular scenery or history to speak of. But it’s a good place. It’s peaceful and safe here, and relaxing to boot. I have time for tennis with my friends every weekend.”
The woman brought in glasses and a bottle of liquor on a tray. She poured a glass for her husband and handed it to him.
The man looked a little surprised, but he downed the glass in one go and exhaled. His face slowly turned red. “Honey, where are the sides?”
“Oh, right. Give me a second,” the woman replied, turning.
“IT’S ALREADY BEEN A SECOND! I WANT MY SIDES NOW, YOU STUPID LITTLE BITCH!”
The man rose from his seat, grabbed the woman by the hair, and dragged her away.
The woman gave a soft scream as they disappeared into the next room.
Kino heard several impacts.
“Stupid pig! Humiliating me every step of the way!”
The man was shouting and swearing.
“You’re useless! How many times do I have to tell you to stop making me lose face?! Lazing around at home like an ungrateful bitch! Who do you think keeps you fed?! Sandy, are you listening to me?!”
There was a moment of silence. Followed by—
“Forget this. I’m in a good mood today, so I’ll let you off easy. Get back in the kitchen and fix us something. Don’t just stand there, get moving!”
Kino heard something fall.
The man returned to the dining room, flushed red. An apologetic look rose to his face the second he took a seat.
“I’m terribly sorry about that awful display, Traveler. She’s usually a bit better about homemaking. Please—Sandy’s always been useless, so be patient with her. Would you like a glass?”
“No thank you,” Kino replied, expression unchanging. “I’m afraid I don’t drink.”
“Ah, then try some of this,” the man said, offering Kino a small plate of biscuits.
Kino thanked the man and put a biscuit into her mouth. That was when the woman happened to stagger into the dining room. Her hair was disheveled and she was pressing a hand against her forehead. She hobbled into the kitchen like a ghost.
“Tea for the traveler! Now!” the man commanded. He poured himself another glass of liquor, and became more and more talkative. “Ha ha! You have no idea how envious I am of you, Traveler. Going from one place to another, seeing new places… I used to ride a motorrad myself, you know. One of those models with two engines sticking out like this. Not to brag, but I was pretty good. Ended up flipping it over, though, so I had to return the one I rented, though… Hic! I wanted to be a traveler, you know. Traveler, do you enjoy it? Going around the world?”
Kino smiled. “Very much. It’s fun to see how different countries have their own unique customs.”
“You’re pretty good, Kino,” Hermes muttered to himself.
“Yes, exactly!” the man agreed, slapping his knee. He began to sway. “There are different countries! And you go to them. Couldn’t ask for a better life, no sir! That’s why you have to get out there and travel while you’re still young! Hic!”
The man tried to lean forward, but lost his balance and wobbled. He swung his arms to reorient himself and ended up hitting his wife, who was walking in with a plate. She dropped the plate. Food scattered all over the floor.
“Ah!” the woman screamed.
The man’s face went cold. He shot his wife a glare.
“Don’t ‘ah’ me, you useless pig! Look what you did to the food! Hic! Useless! Idiot! Lick this stuff off the floor!”
Kino ate another biscuit.
The man grabbed the woman by her long hair again and dragged her into the next room.
Kino heard several more impacts. Followed by more swearing.
“Can’t even serve food right! You’re a waste of space! Imagine how I feel, having to put up with a bitch like you every day! What, cat got your tongue? Don’t just stand there, Sandy. Are you ignoring me?!”
“Why do you have to be so slow, goddammit? The first guest in forever, and you have to mess it all up. Who do you think supports this family? Well?! …Look, I’m tired from work and going to bed. So clean up your damned mess and polish the floor until it’s sparkling.”
Then the sound of something falling again.
The man returned to the dining room.
“Terribly sorry, but I’m going to excuse myself now, Traveler. It was great to get to talk to you. Please make yourself at home a little longer if you’re not busy—just tell my wife what to do, and she’ll probably do what you order. Even if she is a useless little bitch,” he said in an exceedingly polite tone, and dragged out his wife. “Now get to work!”
Her forehead, which he had hit earlier, was swollen. The corner of her lip was torn and bleeding. The man shoved the woman to the floor and wobbled away. Soon came the sound of footsteps staggering up the stairs.
Kino cast Hermes a glance and stood. She tried to help the woman pick up the food off the floor.
“Please, there’s no need,” the woman said. “I’m sorry. But it’s really all right. Please sit down and relax.”
“Yeah. You don’t have to help, Kino,” Hermes agreed. Kino looked at him again before taking a seat.
The woman pressed a hand to her bleeding lip as she picked up the food and cleaned the floor.
Once she had cleared the table, the woman washed her hands in the kitchen and wiped her face. Then she brewed Kino tea. Kino took the cup with a word of thanks.
“One moment, please,” the woman said, and left the dining room. Her footsteps disappeared up the stairs, then came down again.
The woman returned to the dining room and sat down across from Kino. Her right eyelid was swollen and blood had dried on her lower lip.
“I’m so sorry about the commotion. It must have given you a fright.” she said.
“A little,” Kino replied. “But Hermes and I saw a couple fighting in broad daylight on the street earlier, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise. I tried to stop the couple, but the police told me not to.”
“Is that how things work here?” Hermes asked.
The woman nodded. “Yes. In our country, anything is permitted between people in love. So when it comes to your spouse, nothing short of murder is considered a crime.”
Kino and Hermes listened quietly.
“But this isn’t anything out of the ordinary for me. My husband’s been this way for years.”
“I see,” Kino said.
“Hey, why’d you marry someone like him?” Hermes asked bluntly.
The woman smiled. Almost as if she had been hoping for—and dreading—the question.
“Why did I marry him, I wonder?”
“Was he like that before you got married?” Hermes asked.
“No, he wasn’t. He seemed like a kind, diligent man when I first met him on a blind date.”
“What’s a ‘blind date’?” Kino asked.
“Maybe it’s the name of the restaurant they met at?” Hermes suggested. The woman shook her head.
“It’s a custom we have here in this country. Men and women seeking marriage are introduced to one another by a third party. They put together people from compatible family situations and economic backgrounds to help them get married.”
“Does that mean some people end up marrying people they don’t even love?” Kino asked, shocked.
“I suppose you could say that. In our country, you’re not considered a real adult until you’re married. Men have to provide for their families and women have to take care of the home.”
“That’s why people start getting anxious as they enter their late twenties. They worry that they’ll never be able to get married, that they’ll never be treated like a real member of society. People like that usually sign up for blind dates.”
“I see. But isn’t marriage usually for people in love who want to be together for the rest of their lives?” Kino wondered.
“But these blind dates are backwards. You’re choosing a person to be with because you want to be married.”
The woman thought for a moment, and nodded. “That does seem to be the case, when you put it that way. But it’s the same either way. Some people marry for love but end up fighting constantly, and some people meet through a blind date and end up happy together. Like my parents. I grew up watching them, so I always dreamed of being in a marriage like theirs. My parents were my role models. I’m sure it must have been the same for you, Traveler.”
Kino did not say anything. Hermes spoke instead. “But you ended up with a guy like him for a husband.”
“That’s right. People always tend to be more careful before and right after marriage. So I had no idea what he was really like. But over time, we slowly stopped being so careful around one another… And now it’s come to this. Or maybe he wasn’t always this way, and he changed over the years. One day he saw a bit of dust on the floor and hit me out of nowhere. I was so surprised then that I could barely think. I just kept letting him hit me.”
“I see,” Hermes said.
“After that, he started hitting me for the most trivial things. It got worse when he was drunk. He’d push me down the stairs, burn me with his cigarettes… Once, he left me in the snow without even a jacket.”
Kino was silent. But Hermes urged her to continue, amused. “What else?”
The woman said indifferently, “When my injuries were so bad that he couldn’t hit me without getting his hands dirty, he’d torment me in other ways. He’d tell my close friends that I was mentally ill or insane, and even when he didn’t beat me, he’d yell at me once an hour. None of the things I brought with me when we got married are still around. He broke them or threw them out. Until last year, I had a pet cat. But he threw her against the floor when I was out, and I had to put her down. He was fined for animal abuse. He beat me afterwards, saying it was my fault for having a pet in the first place.”
Kino was silent. Hermes said, “Hm. I see.”
“I wanted to study, but he burned all the books I bought. He says there’s no merit in a housewife getting an education. So I bought books on cooking and housekeeping instead, but he threw them out, saying that I was too hopeless for anything and my books were a waste of money. Now I have no idea how the household finances are. I don’t have a life insurance policy anymore, and no spending money of my own. He says that a slave doesn’t need money. That I should shut up and do as I’m told.”
“Ah, I see. I get it,” Hermes said. The woman continued.
“But you know, the morning after the first time he hit me, he got down on his knees and apologized in tears. So I broke down crying too and forgave him, thinking, ‘What a kind person he is’. I thought that maybe, I messed up so much as a wife that I drove him to that point. I used to think that if he was a flawed person, I was the only one who could fix him. That that was my duty.”
The woman gave a self-deprecating laugh.
“Have you ever considered divorce?” Kino asked. The woman looked even sadder than when she was being beaten.
“I suppose it’s only natural that you don’t know, Traveler. Divorce is forbidden in our country. It’s considered a crime. Marriage only ends when you are parted by death.”
“Wow. Is this because of religious beliefs?”
“No. You could call it a social norm. Divorce was allowed in the past, but even then it was considered a great dishonor. Divorced people were labeled social outcasts who couldn’t maintain families. Divorce was outlawed so people wouldn’t be excluded from society that way.”
“I see…” Kino whispered. And she glanced at Hermes to say—
“Traveler,” the bruised woman interrupted, voice lowered. “I have a request.”
Kino turned. “Is it something I can do?”
“It’s something only you can do. And it won’t be hard for you. I can even pay you, Traveler. Take anything in this house you think you might need. It’s about my husband.”
“I knew it,” Hermes said.
“What would you have me do?” asked Kino.
The woman turned to make sure no one was behind her. Then she said in a low, grave voice, “Traveler, please shoot my husband to death.”
“Sure thing!” Hermes exclaimed immediately.
“Please ignore Hermes,” Kino said.
The woman’s expression didn’t change. She kept her gaze on Kino. “Please. He must be asleep right now. I even have the bedroom key here.”
Kino shook her head. “I can’t. I’m afraid I’ll have to turn down your request.”
“Aww, so you’re not gonna do it?” asked Hermes.
“No. This is murder,” Kino replied.
Hermes sounded dubious. “And you’ve never killed anyone before, Kino?”
“This is different. I’d be directly going against the laws of this country, is what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to go to prison.”
“I guess whatever happens to the lady here, you’ll be free anyway. So it doesn’t really matter if you think about it that way,” Hermes said. It was difficult to tell how serious he was being.
“Er…” the woman began. “That won’t be a problem. You won’t be charged with murder.”
Kino was bewildered. Almost as though she had woken up at noon. “What do you mean?”
“In our country, outlanders aren’t charged with crimes as long as they leave within one day. In the past, the police did go after travelers who committed crimes, but they never managed to catch the ones who left the walls. So they made a law saying that outlanders are exempt from prosecution if they left, so that the police would be spared public criticism. That’s why you’ll be able to leave freely tomorrow morning, no matter how many people you kill here.”
Kino did not say a word. Hermes spoke instead. “Well, Kino?”
The woman continued. “The police officer must have stopped you from intervening in the fight because of this law. I’m sure I’ll be charged with telling you about the exemption, but that doesn’t matter.”
Kino fell into thought. Then she said, “Could I ask you a few things?”
“If you were to kill your husband because you couldn’t stand his violent behavior, how would you be punished?”
“With execution. The killing of a spouse is first-degree murder. Since marital violence isn’t a crime, I would have murdered a man for no reason.”
“One more question. Your husband called you ‘Sandy’. Is that your name?”
The woman smiled. “It’s a nickname. It comes from ‘sandbag’.”
Kino was silent.
“Are you listening, Kino?” asked Hermes.
The woman gave Kino a desperate stare. “Please…I’m begging you…”
Kino rose and looked at Cannon, still holstered on her thigh. It was fully loaded.
“Hermes, we’re going.”
“I knew it,” Hermes replied.
The woman was in disbelief. She leapt to her feet, letting her chair fall, and clung to Kino’s leg. “No! Please! I can’t go on living like this, Traveler! You saw how he hurt me! I’m begging you, you’re my only hope! This is my first and only chance! I’ve been waiting and waiting for a day like this to come, so please…”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Kino said, cooly and slowly shaking off the woman’s grip.
Then she raised Hermes’s center stand and pushed him to the door.
“Please…you have to help me…”
When she reached the doorway, Kino turned to the woman weeping on the floor.
“Thank you for the tea and biscuits—”
And she finally said to the woman, who sat wide-eyed with tears streaming down her face,
“—But I don’t want to be anyone’s god.”
Kino and Hermes left the townhouse.
“That left a bad taste in my mouth,” Kino confessed.
“I understand,” Hermes said reassuringly, “but only the people here can solve these problems. A traveler can argue all she likes, but the people in this country can just shut her down saying that an outlander’s got no right to interfere. Meddling in fantastic affairs, right?”
“You mean ‘domestic affairs’?”
Hermes said no more.
“You’re right, Hermes. But that’s why I’m even more frustrated.”
“Cheer up. They say stuffing yourself with sweets helps you perk up. This is fact, by the way.”
Kino exhaled. “All right. Maybe the cafe from this morning might have something…”
Starting Hermes, Kino put on her hat and goggles and rode down the street.
“By the way, Kino… You noticed too, right?” Hermes said hesitantly.
Kino nodded. “Yeah. Serving strong liquor so early in the day, and dropping the plate…it was all intentional. I noticed.”
“She’s a shrewd one. I’m impressed.”
“People have their reasons.”
“Hello, Traveler,” said the police officer whom Kino and Hermes had met that morning.
The open-air cafe had closed for the day, and the area was deserted. Kino was just putting on her hat in disappointment.
Without a word, she went up to the officer. And as he stood in confusion, she passed by his right side.
At that very moment, Kino reached for the officer’s holster and pulled out his hand persuader. The officer noticed too late. Before he could react, he felt something touch his back. Frozen, he heard a voice behind his ear.
“Don’t move. You don’t have to put up your hands.”
“T-traveler? D-d-d-do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“Yes. And I also know that pulling the trigger won’t mean anything to me, legally speaking. I’m leaving the country tomorrow, for your information.”
The officer was lost for words. But soon, he managed to speak. “D-did someone tell you? Wh-who was it? If you’re going to kill me anyway, could you please tell me? A-a-and give me time to contact headquarters about this person?”
“This guy’s really devoted to his job, Kino,” said Hermes. “I can respect that. Let’s give him a double promotion.”
Kino continued indifferently. “I tortured the information out of someone. I was told that I would not be held responsible for any crime as long as I left by tomorrow.”
The officer was silent.
“I take it that it’s all right for me to pull the trigger, then?”
“Er…I… No! I have a wife waiting for me back home. I don’t want to die yet.”
“Really? Then here you are.”
Kino put the hand persuader back in the officer’s holster.
The officer turned in shock, and breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that Kino was holding her finger to his back. Then he shook his head again and again, and exhaled.
“It’s a strange law,” Kino said.
Though the officer was glaring, he replied courteously, “It is. One we should be getting rid of, in my opinion.”
“I agree. I have no idea what I’ll end up doing because of it.”
“Speeding, stealing, kidnapping, or eating and running,” Hermes joked.
The officer sighed again.
“Please don’t worry. I plan to leave the country tomorrow. I won’t do anything here, and I swear to not tell anyone about this law. By the way, could I ask you something?”
“What is it?”
“It’s about the law that allows spouses to do anything to each other. Does this country have any plans to change it?”
“Why would we?” the officer asked, flabbergasted.
“But Officer,” said Hermes, “that means it’s okay to hurt someone as long as they’re married to you, whether it’s punching or kicking.”
“And this country believes it’s okay?” Kino asked.
The officer finally seemed to understand Kino and Hermes’ line of thought. He gave them a look like an adult educating a child. “That’s not a concern. After all, it’s between spouses.”
Kino and Hermes were silent.
“Married couples fight in any country. It is impossible to stop, and the police cannot possibly intervene.”
“Not even for abuse?” asked Kino.
The officer shook his head. “No. Even if you would label the continued winning streak of one spouse over the other as ‘abuse’, the police does not intervene. After all, this is something between the couple. Outsiders have no right to interfere in matters of matrimony. It would be meddling in domestic affairs.”
“Meddling in domestic affairs, huh,” Hermes repeated.
“People have the right and responsibility to choose their own way of life. A married couple is considered one body, one flesh. They must cooperate and work together until death do them part. In sickness and in health, they must pull through together. They must share everything together and live under the same roof as family. Which is why no outsider—much less the law—should interfere with a marriage. In fact, it’s not something that can be interfered with.”
Kino and Hermes were silent.
“I’m a married man myself. So I know all too well that at times, it’s inevitable that you end up fighting with the person you are closest with. Sometimes you end up fighting because you love each other so much. But as I have said, this is a problem between the couple that must be solved by the couple. Sometimes, fighting and making up later can strengthen the relationship further.”
“Really?” Kino asked dubiously. The officer chuckled.
“You’ll understand if you ever get married, Traveler. It’ll all click someday.”
“I see,” Hermes mumbled. Kino said nothing. Hermes asked, “What do you say, Kino? Feel like shooting?”
The officer flinched. “What?! What do you—”
Kino lightly tapped on Cannon, strapped to her thigh, and glanced at the officer. “No,” she said.
The officer’s relief was palpable. Kino shot him a glare.
As the officer trembled again, she asked, “I’m craving something sweet, officer. Do you have any good places to recommend?”
That night. Kino was asleep.
The man whose house Kino and Hermes had visited rose from his bed and went down to the dining room. He ordered the woman—who was asleep at the table—to bring him food immediately.
When she asked him what he wanted, he replied in a loving tone, “I’m fine with anything. Everything you make tastes like pig slop anyway.”
The woman chopped up a piece of steak and cooked it on a frying pan. She brought it to the dining room, pan and all.
The man sat before his plate. That was when the woman said quietly,
“Honey, I learned a valuable lesson today.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
With puffy red eyes, the woman smiled. “That there’s no god in this world. And that there are no miracles. That people have to solve their own problems. I…I had it all wrong. I just sat around without lifting a finger, blindly hoping things would turn out right. I assumed that my fairy godmother would show up one day and grant my wish. I’m sure my parents didn’t have it as easy as it looked. They must have put so much effort into getting along.”
“Still a brainless little sandbag. Shut your hole and give me my steak. And something to drink, too. And stay right there—I’m gonna need a workout after dinner. Brainless pig.”
The woman stood stock-still for a time. The frying pan sizzled in her hands.
“Move it. Or are you asking for another one?” the man spat without looking at the woman.
But she simply stood blankly, deep in thought.
“Hey!” the man growled, but the woman did not move.
Finally, the man angrily rose to his feet. His chair clattered to the floor.
A scream filled the dining room. It was high-pitched and went on for what seemed like forever, echoing across the neighborhood. But no one cared.
The next day. It was the third day of Kino’s stay in the country.
By the time Hermes woke up, Kino was already done packing.
“Good morning, Kino. Leaving already?”
Kino replied, wiping her goggles, “Yeah. There’s nothing really interesting here. And I might gain weight if I stay too long.”
They made their way to the western gate. Hermes asked Kino if she would do something to help the woman, but Kino replied, “No. It’s not like she’s going to do anything.”
“True. She’s not you, Kino.”
At the gates, Kino shut off Hermes’ engine and climbed off. She pushed him through the gates and was almost out of the country, when someone called to her.
Kino turned. The woman from the previous day was waving and smiling at her from a car parked a slight distance away. She drove over to Kino and Hermes.
The woman disembarked and stood before them. Though there was a black bruise on her forehead, she seemed to be in good spirits. “I’m glad I caught you before you left. I wanted to see you off.”
“Thank you. It’s nice to see you again,” Kino said uncomfortably.
The woman smiled and tapped her car. “Come on out, Honey. We agreed we’d see off the traveler together.”
The man slowly disembarked.
Bandages were wrapped around his head. His left arm was in a cast slung from his neck, and his glasses were bent.
“What happened?” asked Kino. The man did not reply. The woman gave a shy smile. “We had a bit of a lovers’ spat yesterday.” She tapped him on the shoulder.
The man twitched. He stood there without a word.
“Honey, say hi to the traveler.”
“Oh…er…right. Er…good morning…” the man said feebly. The woman reached into the back seat and took out a rolling pin.
She brought it down on her husband’s back.
“AH!” the man screamed, flinching. Unperturbed, the woman struck him seven more times as he stood helplessly.
“Speak up. No one’s going to hear you if you talk like that.”
“I-I’m sorry,” the man managed to say. The woman bent down and swung the rolling pin at the man’s thigh. He crumpled and landed on his injured left arm, and screamed again.
Kino watched as indifferently as she had the previous day.
The woman ignored the fallen man and turned back to Kino. That was when another person stepped in.
“Ah! I see you’re leaving, Traveler.” The officer whom Kino had threatened the previous day came jogging. “It’s good to see you again. Are you going now? Did you enjoy your stay?” he asked with a smile. Kino nodded. Hermes agreed.
“It was great. It’s not every day you’re tailed by the police from the break of dawn.”
The officer’s eyes went wide, but he quickly put on an embarrassed look. “Heh…so you noticed. I’m terribly sorry. This is my job. I’m quite devoted to it, you know.”
“That’s pretty good,” Hermes chuckled with the officer.
That was when the man suddenly leapt to his feet and cried, “H-help me!” He clung to the officer’s leg. “Officer, you have to help me! Y-y-you have no idea what this woman put me through!”
The officer gave the man an annoyed look and turned to the woman.
“He’s my husband,” the woman said.
“You have to save me, Officer! She’s going to kill me!”
“Now, now. Get a hold of yourself,” the officer said, cooly and slowly shaking off the man’s grip.
The woman leaned in close to the man and gave him a gentle smile. “Don’t worry, Honey. I’m not going to kill you.”
“Agh!” The man shrank back.
“I avoided all your vitals. I used to be a doctor before we got married, do you remember?”
“See, sir?” said the officer, “You’re going to be just fine. Now calm down.”
The man pointed at the bandages around his head. “Look at this! My wife hit me over the head with a hot frying pan last night! Then she hit me with a chair while I was reeling. My left arm’s cracked, see? Look!” he cried, pointing at his cast.
The officer seemed nothing if not amused. “Now, now, sir. Injuries from fights with your wife are like medals of honor.” An old man passing by with his wife chuckled quietly.
“This is ridiculous…” the man moaned. The woman’s foot slammed into his side.
With a cry, the man clutched his side and fell to the ground. And he went quiet.
The woman bowed apologetically to the officer again and again. “I’m so sorry, Officer. Please excuse him.”
“Not at all,” replied the officer, “It’s my job to keep the peace. It’s only natural to give counsel for even the smallest of potential problems. To be honest, it’s so peaceful around here that I barely have any work to do.”
The officer saluted and gave a slight wink.
“My,” the woman exclaimed, smiling.
“Please…you have to help me… Officer, please…she’s going to kill me…”
The officer crouched down and said indifferently to the man, “Look, sir. The police don’t have time for this. Now forget your paranoia and get along with your wife. You’re married; this is a problem you have to work out amongst yourselves.”
The officer then rose and saluted Kino and Hermes. “If you’ll excuse me, now. I apologize again for tailing you. Thank you for visiting, and I will leave the rest to the soldier at the guardhouse. …By the way, how did you like the root beer float?”
“It was great,” Kino replied, and bowed. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” the officer replied, and left.
Once the officer was gone, the woman continued where she had left off. “I came all this way because I wanted to thank you, Traveler.”
“Thank me? For what?”
The woman smiled. “You were right. Thank you for turning down my request yesterday.”
Kino let the woman continue.
“I realized thanks to you that people have to solve their own problems. This problem was between me and my husband, so we had to work it out amongst ourselves. I’m not going to wait for god anymore. I’ll work for my happiness instead of waiting blindly for it. By the way, I wanted to give you a gift to remember our country by. Just give me one moment,” the woman said, and pulled on her husband’s ear. “I’ll be right back, Honey. Don’t do anything to offend the traveler.”
The man stayed silent.
“I can’t hear you!” the woman yelled into his ear.
The man cringed in pain. “I-I won’t.”
“Oh, and give me your wallet. I’ll take care of the finances from now on so you don’t have to think about all these trivial things. Okay?”
The woman let go. The man’s head dropped back down to the ground. His glasses came off.
The woman fished out his wallet from his pocket and went into a nearby store with a spring in her step.
Indifferently, Kino watched the man slowly sit up.
The man was sitting on the ground. Blood was soaking the bandages around his head. He gave Kino a desperate stare. “T-Traveler…I have a request,” he said feebly.
“What is it?”
“Please kill that woman.”
“What woman?” Kino repeated plainly.
The man trembled, his tone rising. “My wife! J-just between us, Traveler, outlanders are not charged with any crime as long as they leave the country immediately. I-I’ll be charged with telling you this, of course, but that doesn’t matter! So please! Please shoot my wife! I’ll give you anything!”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse.”
The man was on the verge of tears. And he indeed broke down crying.
Head bowed, he muttered between sobs, “Why…why me? I just don’t understand… What did I do to deserve this? Did I hurt her feelings? Or do most wives suddenly turn violent for no reason?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been married.”
“Ah…” The man sniffled several times. “I always did my best to be a good husband. I came home early from work every day to spend more time with her, even turning down invitations from friends, I spent weekends at home with her and tried the things she enjoyed.”
Kino and Hermes were silent.
“It wasn’t all fun, of course, but I wanted to have a good relationship with her, so I told myself to be patient and endure for her sake. And I thought I made her happy. So how did things come to this? She just lost her mind last night. Do I take her to a hospital? I just don’t understand…”
“Have you ever done anything to make her angry?” Kino asked.
“No… Or at least, not that I can think of.”
“Or hit her, maybe?” Hermes asked.
The man shook his head. But suddenly he became more talkative. “Well… I hit her a few times, when she stubbornly insisted that she was right when she was wrong. But not very hard, of course! I could never hit a woman at full strength! I—”
His frame suddenly bent sideways.
The man’s glasses went flying and he landed face-first on the ground. The woman had returned and kicked him in the right arm.
Ignoring her husband, the woman handed Kino a small paper bag. “Here. Go on, open it.”
Kino looked inside. A thin metal plate with a ring, engraved with a pair of parrots leaning together. She showed it to Hermes.
“It’s a charm. I didn’t want to get you anything too big for traveling.”
“Thank you. What is this charm for?” Kino asked.
The woman smiled and replied, “For a happy marriage. These are called ‘lovebirds’, and they mate for life. It’s what you call a happily married couple. I hope you’ll find a wonderful partner of your own someday.”
“Thank you,” Kino replied with an indescribable expression. Then she pushed Hermes through the open gates. When she turned, she saw the woman hitting the man several times.
“Have a look at this!” the soldier at the guardhouse said from behind the window, holding up a panel displaying photos of several men and their profiles.
“What’s this?” Kino asked.
“Glad you asked! This is the culmination of our country’s pride and joy, the results of our domestically-developed matchmaking questionnaire. A list of men whom we found to be most compatible with you!”
“Oh! Let’s see!” Hermes exclaimed.
The soldier tilted the panel so Hermes could see as well. “Remember the questionnaire you filled out when you first came to our country? We used that information to analyze your character from a range of perspectives and picked out several single men in our country with matching values, lifestyles, interests, and more!”
The soldier smiled. “If you’d like to meet them, we could grant you an extra month’s stay at our country. And if you end up marrying one of them, you will receive citizenship here, no strings attached.”
Kino was silent. “That’s amazing!” Hermes responded in her place.
“Isn’t it? You’re very lucky, Kino. We happen to be running a matchmaking campaign right now. This offer doesn’t come every day. What do you say? It’s your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Those on the road have much fewer chances to meet attractive people.”
“Yeah. And Kino shoots some of them, which doesn’t really help. Sometimes they run away screaming. I get anxious just watching.”
Hermes seemed to be having fun. The soldier continued. “What do you say, Kino? According to a survey we conducted, 67% of single men and 82% of single women agree that marriage will make them happier. On the other hand, 43% of single men and only 29% of single women believe that they do not have to be active in their search for a mate. Why not try rethinking your lifestyle and giving this offer a go? We can also offer you about 50 profiles per week from the thousands of men in our database. We also host two parties a week, sponsored by the government—which means the parties are hosted in nowhere other than the national VIP Hall! come hear the National Orchestra play, and sometimes even the Prime Minister will give an encouraging speech!”
Kino was silent.
“What do you say? According to one scholar, humans cannot survive without relying on one another. And one poet once wrote, ‘Marriage is the smallest and most perfect group created by humans’. A famous saying goes, ‘Marriage halves your sorrows and doubles your joys’.”
Kino was silent.
“Frankly speaking, don’t you find it quite problematic to discuss life without having been married? Marriage is the goal and true starting point of life. Your entire life until now has merely been practice for marriage. A rehearsal, if you will.”
Kino was silent.
“You may still be young, Kino, but if you don’t start now, you’ll end up a spinster before you know it. Now sign this contract and seek out your soulmate in our country!”
Kino took her fingers off her temple and looked up. And she said quietly,
“Did you know that nothing I do here is punishable by the law?”
“Have a safe journey!” the soldier cried with a cheerful smile. The guardhouse window slammed shut.
Kino shook her head several times before straddling Hermes and starting the engine. She put on her goggles.
“Let’s go, Hermes.”
“Not gonna get married?” Hermes joked.
Kino replied, “I think traveling is the safer option.”
As Hermes started moving, Kino looked up at the towering walls and muttered,
“Have a good marriage.”