Telling Tales 158
“So there he is, in the stocks. Bulat is in the middle of town, his neck and wrists trapped by the wood slats. Most of the people ignore him. It’s the kids he has to worry about. Kids’re naturally cruel. Maybe unthinkingly, I don’t know, all I can tell you is that they’re most of the ones who’re laughing and yelling at him and throwing things at him. Maybe they’re following a grown-up’s lead. However it happens, there’s a mob of kids coming and going, in and out of the square. This one group, they’re like insects. Five over here, four over there, six in a third group. The four and six meet up and ten kids throw trash at Bulat, then they break into three, four, and three and leave the square again. Coming and going. Throwing garbage. Throwing insults.
The only people who aren’t going anywhere are Bulat himself, locked up the way he is, a couple of shopkeepers who like to be outside of their stores to keep an eye on things, and a single guard to make sure that no one kills Bulat. You can throw anything at him you like, but you can’t hurt him too badly.”
“Why was he locked up?” Sergei.
“I don’t know, do I? You don’t always know these things. Why do good kings marry bad queens who enchant their daughters? Why do fairies get so upset about not being invited to a baptism? Baptisms are boring.” Dmitri.
“Not if you’re the parent.” Sergei.
“Well, I’m not, am I, and I think they’re boring. And now you’re being difficult.” Dmitri.
“I know why he was in the stocks.” Yevgeny.
Dmitri. “You can fill in later. I’m talking now.”
* * *
The soldier in the stocks had had better days. Maybe that goes without saying. If you’re being punished for something, whether you deserve it or not, you’ve had a better day. Who likes the rotten vegetables? Who likes the humiliation? The soldier, Bulat, dropped his head whenever he could. The guard didn’t like him looking at the ground, so he let the rampaging children shove garbage into his face as much as their parents let them do it.
“It’s good for them, if you think about,” he said.
The soldier did not so much as grunt a reply.
“This way,” said the guard, “think about it this way. They’re not vicious by nature, but they’re learning about viciousness by being vicious. That’s good. You’re an example, see. They’re afraid of you, that’s why they run away and come back. Every time they re-discover how helpless you are, punish you some more, and then they scare themselves and flee. They’re learning punishment. Don’t think that’s the only lesson, though, no indeed. They’re also learning what happens to criminals. ‘That could be me up there,’ is what they’re learning. Your public punishment makes them better people.”
The soldier remained silent.
“Maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you. I’m not surprised. You’re not in the best position to have much perspective on all of this. Here they come. Put your head up.”
The soldier did not, but the children did it for him.
“Ease up there, kids. No rocks. I said, no rocks! Alright, get out of here, go on. Go on!” To the soldier, “Can’t hold it against them. We were all young once. Guess you didn’t pick up on all of your lessons, eh? Otherwise you wouldn’t be here now.”
The soldier did not answer. He was counting. Freedom was impossible. Death was far off.