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The Legend of Wei Li and the Emperor’s Palace
One morning the elderly Wei Li was summoned to the emperor’s palace. He had lived his whole life in a small fishing village and didn’t know where the palace was, but imagined it to be in the state capitol, which he’d never visited. When he asked for directions at the market, an officer told him the palace was everywhere, that the palace was the country. Your bare feet tread even now on one of the palace’s corridors, he told Wei Li; your hut’s in one of the palace’s gardens; the whole village, he said, is a piece of the palace. There’s no reason to go to the capitol to look for the palace because the palace is here.
Wei Li considered, and decided that the best way to obey the order would be to return to his hut and wait in his room until a new order came.
The following week, a pair of officers appeared in Wei Li’s hut and dragged him out. He was executed immediately, his head fixed on a pole in the village square, a lesson to any who dared to disobey the emperor’s call.
Its brilliant mirror-surface buildings seem to belie it. Streets vibrant with history; compact, tree-laden squares, statues of impeccable gentlemen and fine-featured cavalry; slums writhing in suffering: it all seems to indicate otherwise. But the city doesn’t exist. No shops or offices here, no schools, parks, restaurants, bookstores, or factories. The city’s six million inhabitants convey themselves to towns on the periphery, 30 minutes or six hours away, to buy bread or milk or pairs of shoes, newspapers, to work or go see a movie, attend school or university, visit a library, to find or lose themselves in a church, find or lose themselves in motels. The homes and streets of the city function with elaborate cunning, layering over what’s empty with the incontestably firm.
Why does the nonexistent city exist?
To ensnare us in the pleasures of story, the simple purity of pending climax, denouement, ending, of meaning justifying the whole. In the service of the incontestably firm, words themselves work to layer over what’s empty, and win again, desperately.
Dictator and Cards
In this one, anyway, the dictator Joaquin Iturbide owned a greeting card factory and held the monopoly on card sales in the country, and one day decided to declare June 26th Friendship Day, and the cards made for this day had such unexpected success with the public, creating such spectacular gains for the company, the dictator declared August 14th Jealousy Day, which was a success as well. Of its own volition, success bred success, and in less than five years every day of the year had been taken—there was Bitterness Day and Unfaithful Girlfriend Day and Great Grandparents Day, Loving Husbands Who Actually Hate Day and Onan Enthusiasts Day, the Day of Those Who Sleep with the Help, the Day of Readers of Marquis de Sade, and the Day of They Who Dream About Centaurs. To make room for new occasions, the dictator divided days into parts: sunset on January 3rd was declared the Hour of Those Who Like Making Love in Darkened Theaters, and October 16th at dawn was the Hour of Those Won’t Kill Even a Fly, and noon on December 21st the Hour of Nostalgia for Cha Cha. And so on. The dictator had made more money at this point selling cards than he had stealing from the country’s coffers, but he didn’t want to give up his power. He wanted to die with it, ancient venerable patriarch that he was.
When death came he was indeed exceedingly old. In his honor, the country’s Council of Dignitaries declared the afternoon of April 2nd at 4:27 and 15 seconds the Fleeting Moment of Eternal Dictators.
Edmundo Paz Soldán is Professor of Hispanic Literature at Cornell University and author of four short-story collections and nine novels, most recently Norte.
Kirk Nesset is Professor of English at Allegheny College and author of several books, including Saint X and Mr. Agreeable.
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