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Chapter 8: The Country of Acknowledgement
A motorrad was racing across a plain dotted with shrubs.
The motorrad was fully laden with travel gear hanging off the sides of its rear wheel. It roared down the reddish-brown road cracked in the drought.
The rider was in a brown coat with its edges wrapped securely around her thighs. She wore a hat with a brim and a pair of goggles. She was still young, likely in her mid-teens.
The sun was shining brightly. The rider pushed her hat down with her left hand.
“Yeah. I don’t need it after all,” she said suddenly.
The motorrad replied, “What do you mean, Kino?”
“My coat. I don’t need it for riding in this weather. It’s kind of hot.”
Kino loosened her coat. Underneath, she was wearing a black jacket.
“Do you want to stop so you can take it off?” asked the motorrad.
“I’m okay for now, Hermes. I see the city over there. Look.”
Kino pointed into the distance, at a long shadow cast lengthwise near the horizon. The walls of a country.
“I’ll put the coat in the back when we leave the country. And I’ll switch to a lighter shirt, since it’s only going to get warmer.”
“What about your winter gear? You don’t need it anymore,” said Hermes.
Kino nodded. “Yeah. I can’t carry it around until next year. I’ll have to sell it or trade it in, or throw it out. Too bad. I kind of liked this set.” She seemed a little disappointed.
“Nothing you can do about it. Being able to throw out stuff you don’t need is a talent too, you know,” Hermes said. “Some people just can’t do it. Like the ones whose rooms are packed with things they didn’t need but couldn’t throw away.”
“Like that writer we met in that other country. He just didn’t know what to do with the books he’d never read.” Kino nodded.
The walls were growing higher in their sights. Soon, Kino and Hermes were at the gates.
Kino went through entry procedures and was referred to an affordable hotel. The sun was already setting by the time she was at the front desk.
Once she had showered and eaten, Kino went down to the lobby and was looking at a map on the wall when someone loudly called to her.
“Traveler! It’s good to meet you. Welcome to my hotel!”
Kino turned, surprised. There stood a man in his fifties, dressed too comfortably to be an employee. He declared to the entire lobby, “I am the owner of this hotel. Take a seat! Ask me anything about this country, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
The owner was quite drunk. The concierge was grimacing visibly.
Thanking the owner, Kino took a seat on the sofa. The owner sat across from her.
Without being prompted, the owner loudly launched into the story of how he founded the establishment, and how he had left the business to his children and was now enjoying a carefree life. And eventually, he went on to say, “You must be here for the festival, Traveler.”
Kino, who had been going through the motions of nodding, asked him what the festival was about.
“You didn’t know about it? All right, let me explain! First I’ll have to tell you about our history.”
The country was a kingdom, and the king was mandated to be a doctor.
The kingdom had a good welfare system, which meant that medical services were provided free of charge and all citizens could receive treatment at the royal hospital. Doctors, who worked directly for the king, were held in high esteem.
“This festival, you see, I guess it’s actually sort of a voting day. The party’s just a bonus—this is a voting festival,” said the owner.
“What is the vote for?” asked Kino.
The owner grinned. He lowered his tone. “It’s for weeding out people we don’t need. And we kill them. That’s what you do with useless things, no?”
He explained that the vote had great historic significance and described the origin of the festival.
About 150 years ago, years of poor harvests had driven the country to near-collapse. Starvation and sickness ran rampant through its streets.
That was when the king fell back on his last resort: to kill useless people. He would hold a national vote, where people would write down the names of those they needed. Anyone who did not receive a single vote would be executed. The king went through with his plan, accepting that he was not exempt from the process.
The terrifying day came and went, and not a single person was found to be unnecessary. Everyone was needed, even in this time of hardship.
Moved by his people’s resolve, the king reflected on his shameful decision and decided to grit his teeth and fight through the famine with the rest of the country.
The kingdom eventually overcame its struggle, and the incident led to the rapid development of the advanced national welfare system it boasted today.
After the historic first vote, the kingdom made the event an annual one. All literate citizens would write down the names of all the people that they needed in their lives and submit them to the polls.
And so far, said the owner, not a single person had been left out. Everyone in the kingdom needed each other—which was what the festival celebrated.
“I see,” said Kino. “So not a single person was actually executed?”
“Precisely! It’s unprecedented. We’re not crazy enough to actually say to someone, ‘No one needs you here, so die’. We do have an execution device, but it’s never been used. It’s rusted over and displayed in the royal palace. What do you think, Traveler? Isn’t it moving?” the man laughed.
That was when a suit-clad man around thirty years of age walked over. “Er…Father, please don’t make a scene.”
The owner exploded.
“What did you say, boy?! How dare you interrupt me? I built this hotel from the ground up! You have no right to talk that way!”
“I-I didn’t mean—”
“Off! Go do your work! You’ve got a long way to go before you can relax like me, so don’t you dare presume to give me orders. I am a customer today! Do you understand me, Manager? Well?”
The younger man walked away, dejected. The owner snorted and turned back to Kino. “There’ll be plenty to eat and drink at the festival, and great company too. And it’s all free of charge, so don’t hold yourself back. You can stuff yourself silly with all the food you can eat.”
“Thank you,” Kino replied. Then she asked about places where she could trade or sell her winter gear.
“Ah, leave that to me. I can speak to a supplier of mine tomorrow and ask for a good price, even if the gear is barely usable. We’ve been working together for years; he’ll listen to me. Come find me at the festival.”
The man gave a roar of laughter.
“Thank you,” Kino said.
“My pleasure! That’s what life is all about, helping people in need. In other words, I am a needed person!” the man declared, oblivious to the frowning people around them.
Kino looked around the lobby. “Speaking of which, am I allowed to participate in the vote?”
“Travelers are not, I’m afraid,” the man replied.
It was the morning of Kino’s second day in the country.
Kino rose at dawn. As usual, she went over next to the sleeping Hermes and did her exercises, then did drills with her persuaders before maintaining them.
Firecrackers went off outside as Kino ate breakfast. A car was going around, reminding citizens that it was voting day.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Today is the day of the annual vote. Please do not forget your civic duty.”
Kino returned to her room after breakfast. She opened her bag and pulled out a thick winter jacket, a pair of winter pants, a winter hat with ear covers, and leather gloves. She folded them all neatly and placed them on the desk.
Staring at the items one by one, Kino whispered, “You were a big help. Thank you. All of you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Hermes.
“Oh. You were awake, Hermes?” Kino turned.
“Nope. Just talking in my sleep.”
“Really? I think it’s time you woke up.”
Hermes groaned. “That’s a tall order. You know what they say. ‘So short are nights in spring that dawn comes without notice’.”
Kino did not say a word.
“You actually got a saying right.”
“Well, excuse me.”
Kino and Hermes followed the people to the polling station to watch the vote unfold.
At the center of the country was a large building surrounded by trees, and a throng of people crowding inside. The security guard explained that the building was the central hospital, where the king was the director.
Because non-citizens were not permitted to enter, Kino and Hermes watched the crowds from outside the building.
“I’m not putting down your name this year, baby.” “Hey, that’s my line!”
Couples went hand-in-hand to the hospital, exchanging jokes. Families sat around on the grass after voting to have picnics.
“It’s so peaceful,” said Hermes.
Firecrackers went off again a little past lunchtime, when Kino was having tea at a restaurant. Someone explained that the noise signaled the end of voting time. Once the votes were tallied and it was found that no one was found to be unneeded this year, the celebrations would begin.
“We’ll find out by dinnertime. But we’ve always had a festival, so no reason to think otherwise this year,” someone said.
Kino and Hermes had a look around the country and returned to the hotel late in the afternoon. Stalls were going up on the streets and plaza nearby, and people were busy setting up tables and decorations.
The firecrackers went off for the third time that day as the sun set over the ramparts. The car from earlier went around again, announcing that the festival would indeed take place.
The celebrations started as the shadows began growing long on the ground. Lights sparkled everywhere and the streets were overflowing with energy.
Kino spotted the hotel owner and asked him to sell her winter gear for her. The owner, who was already very drunk, guaranteed a good price for the items and took Kino and Hermes to a nearby store.
The owner barged in through the doors and asked the manager for a quote. The manager gave him a price. The hotel owner would not have it, bringing up years of business relations and demanding a better price. The argument went on for some time, but eventually the manager relented and bought the gear for more than his initial offer.
“My work is done,” the owner said proudly, “Now go on and enjoy the festival, Traveler!”
The store manager watched bitterly as the hotel owner left.
“It doesn’t look like he has a lot of friends,” Kino said.
“I could say the same for you, asking for his help when you can tell that much about him. But I suppose that’s why you’re a traveler. Don’t worry yourself over it.”
“Thank you. Could I have four of those shirts there, please?”
The owner nodded and wrapped up the shirts. But his hands paused partway through. “He wasn’t always like this. Back in the day, he was a good man. Founded that hotel with his own two hands, and ran it well. But after his wife passed, everyone insisted that he retire. And he’s been a career drunkard ever since. It’s not just us neighbors. Even his employees and family pretend he doesn’t exist. Not a life I’d wish on anybody. It’d be an awful thing, causing trouble for people with everything you do,” he sighed.
“I see,” Kino replied.
Afterwards, Kino enjoyed the festival, ate as much as her stomach allowed, and bought the things she needed at low prices.
She returned to the hotel to find the drunk owner making a scene.
The next day. It was the morning of Kino’s third day in the country.
Kino rose at dawn. As usual, she went over next to the sleeping Hermes and did her exercises, then did drills with her persuaders before maintaining them.
That was when she noticed a small commotion outside. Through the window, she spotted a car stopping outside the hotel and several men in police uniform entering the building.
Kino went down to the lobby to find the owner’s son and family in pajamas, and the hotel employees, all listening to the police. She asked one of the bellboys what had happened.
“The owner passed away,” he said.
“How?” Kino asked.
The owner had not returned home the previous night, but because it was a festival day, no one had been worried. That was when the police came to explain that the owner had been found crumpled in an alley overnight, and had died in the hospital. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.
“I always told him to ease up on the drinks…” The owner’s son sighed weakly.
Kino watched the son and the family follow the police out the doors. She asked the bellboy if the funeral would be held that day.
“No. I’m afraid we don’t hold funerals in our country. The dead are cremated and buried in a cemetery outside the walls as soon as the family has said their goodbyes. Death is the end; there’s nothing to be done after it.”
That afternoon, Kino packed her things, refueled Hermes, and left the country. She was in her jacket, and wearing a thick belt around her waist. Cannon was holstered on her right thigh.
She rolled up her coat and tied it to Hermes’ luggage rack.
Just outside the western gates was what seemed to be a park. Kino saw large, well-kept trees, gazebos with benches, and rows upon rows of large headstones.
Several people were gathered in a corner. They eventually finished their business and walked in Kino and Hermes’ direction.
“Hello, Traveler,” said one of the people. The son of the late hotel owner. “We’re finished now. It’s that headstone over there. If you have some time before you leave, I’d appreciate it if you’d…”
“We’ll be heading back now. Safe travels.”
Kino watched the group disappear inside the gates and pushed Hermes to the headstone.
The only ones still there were a young man in a white doctor’s coat, and several employees cleaning up the grave.
“If you’ll excuse us, Doctor,” said the employees, taking their equipment and following the family into the gates.
The young man was filling out a document when Kino approached. He looked up in surprise.
He explained to Kino that he was a doctor, and that he was filling out a form to confirm the burial of the deceased.
“I see,” Kino said. She took off her hat and closed her eyes, whispering a silent prayer. Then she told the doctor that she had stayed at the deceased’s hotel.
“Of course,” the doctor said with a nod. His hand stopped. “If you are a traveler, I assume you will be leaving this country now. Then could you give me some of your time? I would like to tell you something.”
“I suppose so, but…”
“What do you want to tell us? Is it something fun?” Hermes asked.
The doctor replied, “Hm. I can’t guarantee that. But it will be interesting, if nothing else. I want to tell you about the wonderful system we have in our country.”
The doctor finished filling out the form and closed his file. Then he led Kino and Hermes to a nearby gazebo. He gestured for Kino to sit and made to sit down himself, but stopped for fear of getting his coat dirty. Kino sat on Hermes.
“So what is this system about?” Hermes asked.
The doctor smiled and said nonchalantly, “I’m the one who killed the deceased.”
Unfazed, Kino asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean exactly what I said. I killed the hotel owner myself. When he was brought into the central hospital early this morning, he was simply suffering a case of acute alcohol poisoning. A little out of sorts, but conscious. But after the treatment, he was found to have been an Anonymer. So I killed him via lethal injection. It was nerve-racking, to be honest. I’d never performed the procedure on my own before.”
“Wait, what’s an Anonymer?” asked Hermes.
“Ah, pardon me. It’s a medical term in our country that refers to people who have not received a single vote in the polls. A person whose continued existence has not been acknowledged. Do you know about the history of the vote?”
Kino nodded. “But I was told that not a single person has been executed so far.”
A mischievous grin rose to the doctor’s face. “That is a lie.”
“Then people have died?”
The doctor nodded. “Yes. Quite a few people have been declared Anonymer since the days of the great famine. Mostly young children or elders who were not useful to anyone. The king at the time was a decisive man, but even he was hesitant about publicly executing citizens in that way. The system would create fear in the country, and that would not be good for the needed people—the people who had the right to live happy lives. So he came up with a way to get rid of the unnecessary elements in secret.”
“How?” asked Hermes.
“Simple. —Did you know that the king is a doctor, and has authority over all doctors in this country as the director of the central hospital?” the doctor said proudly.
“You see, we doctors take care of these elements quietly in the hospital. When the votes are counted and Anonymer identified, they are put on a list. And we kill them discreetly when they come to the hospital. All this, before the next voting day.”
“I see.” “Hm.”
“Those who come in with serious illnesses will simply die if we leave them alone. As for others, we give them injections or drips claiming that their condition has seriously worsened. Traffic accidents are the easiest by far to use as a cover. It’s very easy to claim that the patient died of brain hemorrhaging. Alcohol poisoning is also another easy one,” the doctor said, “But occasionally, we get the rare Anonymer who does not become injured or ill. In that case, we dispose of them by claiming to have found an illness during their regular checkup. Annual checkups are mandated by law for all citizens, you see.”
Kino asked, “And you do this every year?”
“That’s right. It’s practically tradition now. On average, we dispose of a dozen people a year.”
“And no one has found out about it?”
“There has been some suspicion, yes. But everyone knows that accidents are bound to happen, and no one really mourns an Anonymer. They were already voted unnecessary. Not even family members make a fuss about unusual circumstances—in fact, they’re more happy to be rid of a nuisance. By the next day—or after the burial—they feel relief. There’s the insurance payout to look forward to, and the burial costs are covered by the government. No loss for anyone. And in the case of a traffic accident, the perpetrator is often given a very lenient sentence for their cooperation in disposing of an Anonymer.”
The doctor browsed through his file. “Let me see… Ah, yes. This one’s been an Anonymer since the festival before the last. He must have been very unloved. It really is a coincidence that he happened to be the first to go this round. I happened to be on duty at the time and performed the procedure myself. It was very easy.”
The doctor closed the file. He exhaled.
“But I have to admit, it was a little unnerving. I was afraid he might suddenly sit up in his bed. I’m glad it’s over and done with now. I’ve written up the death certificate, and the man is buried. I feel I’ve grown as a doctor now. It’s a momentous occasion for me, which is why I wanted to tell you all this,” he said, embarrassed.
“Do only doctors know about this? Or do the nurses know too?” Kino asked.
“Nurses too, yes. But no one else,” the doctor replied. “To become a doctor, you have to graduate from medical or nursing school at the royal university and pass a national exam. Those who pass are granted an audience with the king, who personally explains the system. Oh, but only doctors are permitted to perform the procedure.”
“How did you feel when you first learned the truth?”
“I was… I was moved. Of course, it was surprising and I did feel a little betrayed. But my nose stung when I heard the king explain, ‘Whether as an individual or a country, it is necessary to protect what is necessary and throw away things that are not. With your talent and ability, you will serve the country by removing elements that are unnecessary to our country’. I was holding back tears that day,” the doctor said, his eyes watering. He met Kino’s gaze. “Personally, I believe that humans are meant to live in connection with other humans. Which is why people who do not have any such connections must not exist. They deserve to be removed. It is a very rational thing to do—almost like trimming away the country’s excesses. I believe this is the ultimate welfare system. And the only people who can make it all possible are people like us, who work in the medical field. That is why I am very proud of the work I do.”
Kino listened in silence.
“Has anyone ever failed, though?” asked Hermes.
“Failure is not an option!” the doctor declared. “Doctors and nurses are not permitted to make mistakes! I swear on my honor that we will not fail in our duties. Certainly, people can end up in circumstances that lead to making mistakes. But at the same time, people have the ability to prevent such mistakes from occurring. Those who cannot utilize the wisdom and experiences of others to prevent mistakes from occurring should turn in their medical licenses,” he said firmly. “I want to gain more experience in both treatment and disposal. My dream is to save everyone who is necessary and must be saved, and to dispose of everyone who is unnecessary and must be removed.”
“Uh-huh. That was a pretty interesting story,” Hermes said.
The doctor suddenly looked very self-conscious. “Thank you for listening to me. I feel so much better now that I’ve told someone. I can’t exactly go around discussing these things in the country, after all. Traveler, please come by if you ever feel unwell. I will take full responsibility for your care. Our services are provided free of charge, no matter the difficulty of the procedure or the length of hospitalization. I guarantee the best treatment our country has to offer.”
With a wave, the doctor left. He disappeared through the gates.
Kino pushed Hermes out of the cemetery and started the engine. She took one last look at the headstones before departing.
For some time, she said nothing. The motorrad soon drove onto a long road on the plain dotted with shrubs.
Hermes finally broke the silence.
“Can I guess what you’re thinking now, Kino?”
“Hm? Sure,” Kino replied. “I’ll call you cool if you can guess.”
“Okay. So you must have looked back on everything so far and thought like this,” Hermes paused for dramatic effect. “‘Oh. If only I’d known it was all free of charge, I’d have gotten a slight injury beforehand and gone to the hospital for a full checkup. I don’t like needles, though’.”
Kino said nothing. Hermes continued down the road, his engine rumbling rhythmically.
Kino admitted wryly, “Word-for-word.”
“I knew it!” Hermes cheered. “Oh! Wait a sec!”
“What’s wrong?” Kino asked.
“You sold the gloves, right?”
Kino nodded. “Yeah.”
“Didn’t you say you didn’t want to damage your regular gloves, so you were going to keep using these until they wore out? For picking up firewood and stuff.”
Kino slammed the brakes. Hermes screeched to a halt.
When Kino looked back, she saw the horizon. Not even a shadow of the country’s walls were visible.
As Kino stared in disappointment, Hermes said nonchalantly, “Too bad. It’s not like you to make a mistake like that.”
Kino shook her head.
“Well? Wanna go back?”
“We can’t.” Kino said.
“What about the gloves?”
Kino turned. She was looking ahead again. “I’ll find another pair someplace else.”
Kino started Hermes again. His rear wheel spun, kicking up dust in its wake. The motorrad soon disappeared from sight.