The latest installment of The Whole in 30 Days podcast–a monthly timed art project from John Pierson and Eric C. Roth, for which I am a regular contributor–is now available to listen online. This month’s theme has been “Leaving,” although I was given the topic “Surrender.” For my part, I wrote and performed a work of short fiction titled The Front, which you can read below.
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On a map, the border between the eastern and western nations appeared as a pinpoint between two spiking slices of land, like the illusion of God and Adam’s fingers making contact in Michelangelo’s Birth of Man. It seemed almost a joke of some kind, drafted by the cartographer in the dark morning hours after several glasses of fine wine with friends not seen since their days at the academy.
In truth, a pinpoint was the only viable option available to produce an approximation of scale, for in actuality, viewed from the ground, the border between the eastern and western nation was a mere 50 meters across, consisting of a ravine 30 meters deep with a single solid iron bridge provided as passage. No kiosk had been built on the bridge, no rotating sentry posted for either east or west. Instead, there was a canopy, and under the canopy, a chair and desk of sturdy oak, and upon the desk a worn leather ledger, an inkwell, a set of fountain pens in a glass case.
And it was on this theater each year that a delegation would arrive from the capital cities of both the eastern and western nations to present the terms of the other’s surrender.
This year the eastern nation had sent as its representative a lad of 19 from its mountainous region, a goatherd with formidable skill for archery and a quiet, effortless charisma. The western nation had sent a widow of 54, who had channeled the grief of her past six months into her fingers, garnering accolades throughout the land for the delicate curves of her pottery. Alongside them came a retinue of officers from their respective nations’ military, there largely as ornamentation.
The eastern and western nations were not at war. The eastern and western nations had never been at war. The militaries existed because each nation had other borders and other neighbors to worry about.
The annual ritual had been established at the conception of both nations, by founders whose statues now rose high in the central squares of both capitals. They had realized, at the outset, the rivalry inherent in all twin siblings, knew that one day their descendant governments would be inspired to consider war, even across the laughable border they shared. And so both founders had met upon the bridge that they together had built, and created the Ceremony of Mutual Surrender in the hopes that it would forever assuage the threat of such a conflict.
The goatherd and widow take turns sitting at and standing before the desk, solemnly opening valises adorned with the sigils of their states, reading in firm tones the demands they have been instructed to deliver. A year’s supply of grain. A delivery of precious metals. Technological specifications and medical research. The eastern and western nations have no written trade agreements, they only have each other’s surrender. The goatherd presents a sword forged in the style preferred by the eastern nation; the widow presents a spear fashioned in the traditions of the west. Papers are signed and seals affixed with wax. Hands are shaken, bows performed. It has been rehearsed for weeks by both sides. Indeed, ironically, at this point it is a poor execution of the Ceremony that would most likely send the two nations to war.
Although it was not a common occurrence, it was not unheard of for ambassadors to fall in love with each other instantly, an adoration sparked of the responsibilities they bore; the power of the moment they shared. Wives, husbands, and lovers would receive the notification from the rest of the delegation, and it was long understood to be a risk of the honor. In a few infamous cases, it had led to strife in the homes of those selected for the ceremony, ultimatums that the task be refused, although the task was never refused and even the people who asked for the blasphemy knew it before they asked. There were surely incidents of murder and suicide buried deep within these whispered stories, but neither nation spoke of them.
But in this way, the politicians and philosophers noted, the notion of surrender was explored and examined in its fullest, for both societies as a whole and the representatives as individuals, and this was as it was intended, and this is why it was just.
With the Ceremony completed, the goatherd and widow return to their capitals with the report that the other nation had agreed to the terms. The rulers of both nations would take to their pulpits in front of their journalists and, teeth gleaming, wardrobe in place, would declare with great gusto for their populace that Victory Was Theirs. The celebrations would last for days, the parades would stretch for miles.
And this was why the motto of both eastern nation and western were identical, and inscribed around the lower basin of the fountains in the plazas of their palaces. “Nothing maintains peace like victory,” it read. And: “Nothing guarantees victory like peace.”