.Renzo's day had gone so very well, at first.
The bird count turned up exactly the birds expected for the day, based on statistics. Counts rarely did match the averages, which fact distressed the central planners, who found it impossible to properly plan when obviously-not-yet-perfected Nature refused to run like a clock. Renzo knew that sometimes the top men in the Department of Statistics for the Good of Society would adjust field reports, to stabilize the foundational data – and rightly so, if they did it scientifically, he thought – but it was pleasant to give them a report that had no need for adjustment. Besides, it made him steadier in his own mind to have firsthand evidence that the big, messy world was indeed becoming predictable, steady, and less messy.
On top of that, his Lesson went especially well. It was on the glorious future, when men would be perfect, because Society would be perfect, because conditions were perfect. Today, it felt especially inspiring, because he felt it happening.
On top of that, today he felt almost grown up, ready to face the world with only the occasional refresher course, instead of daily lessons. He'd been afraid he'd be nervous about growing up, and being that much on his own. But, no. He was, indeed, nearly ready.
Feeling altogether too inspired to stay inside, and also indulging an urge to see if the cattle herder was somewhere he could see her, he took a walk. He found the first wildflowers of the season; just a handful of small blooms, but, still, they were flowers after a season without any. He noticed then that the air still had the smell of upwind snow, but today there was overlay of fresh plant smells, and an earthy aroma almost like cooked food. He realized that he'd been seeing greening grass here and there for a couple of days, without it fully registering. He got on his hands and knees for a closer look at the ground. There were seedlings of various sorts, very tiny yet, mostly in areas that got the most sun. Also, there were barely noticeable bumps that signaled a seedling pushing up, but not yet breaking through. Applauding himself for his powers of observation, he went hunting for the cattle herder, or, rather, for a look at her. It would never do to initiate actual contact, unless instructed to do so – or, unless, perhaps, another emergency arose. Despite all his careful upbringing, being a young man in the prime of life, cut off from a setting that better allowed for heroics, he had something of a hope that somehow she would need his help again. He dutifully dressed this hope up in the proper costumes; he would, of course, be serving Government and Society and History and Order first of all, by helping her.
She wasn't anywhere to be seen. Cattle were huddled near the haystack, as expected – but he fancied that it wasn't just to remain close to the food. He'd learned, so he thought, to find Julia by taking hints from the herd. The hints were that she was close by. But he didn't see her.
It being a pleasant day, with more bird activity than deep winter had offered, he set up, on the spot, for a Supplemental Study, which was a fancy way of saying that he recorded the time, his location, and the weather, and then his observations of birds. Unlike in a regular count, he could linger on any birds he saw, for as long as he wanted, just as long as he made some notes. Between bird observations, of course it wouldn't hurt anything to unofficially glance down the hill to see if his neighbor was in view.
Soon, it was time for his neighbor's supplies to show up. He shifted to where he could study the area around her hut. She still wasn't anywhere to be seen. He imagined her slipping into the river and drowning, or breaking a leg in a gopher hole, or being hauled off by wolves. Just about the time he was ready to burst into action just for the sake of bursting, the helicopter showed up. He hid where he could watch proceedings without being seen. Not only did the herder not show up – it was unheard of, to not meet your suppliers – but, even more impossible, men attacked the helicopter, killing one pilot, and forcing the other to fly to behind the haystacks. They even taunted the surviving pilot, with their leader sticking his hands in the air in mock surrender, before forcing the pilot to do their bidding. The barbarians!
Renzo started to report it, but hesitated as he waited to see what would happen next. The hesitation proved disastrous, letting doubts creep in. He became afraid to get mixed up in it; afraid, too, that if he reported it, they'd find out that he'd been indulging the temptation to sneak out and spend time watching his neighbor, just to watch her. There was no explaining that away, as far as he knew. He was pretty sure it was a serious offense, too. Why would men and women be kept separate, if there wasn't a good reason for it?
His hidden photographs and note sprang to mind; another good, very good, reason to not bring attention to himself, those were. Besides, perhaps he had it all wrong? Perhaps the assault team had been government agents? That seemed more likely than barbarians being on the loose in this day and age. It would never do to report government agents who were simply doing their duty.
He waited for the helicopter to rise into the air again, but waiting became insufferable. He snuck out of eyeshot, bolted for his cabin, and closed the door a little too strenuously behind him. He erased the records from his aborted Supplemental Study, since they showed that he'd been outside at just the wrong time. He closed the curtains, to give himself a further excuse for not having seen anything going on outside. He collapsed on the bed, flattened with indecision. Should he report what he'd seen? What would he say? How would he say it? It was impossible. Perhaps he'd not seen what he'd thought he'd seen? It was, after all, impossible. If he reported it, how would he explain his failure to report it immediately? His head spun. His stomach churned.
The contraband hidden behind the portrait of Greenley the Third ate away at him with fresh vigor. He wanted to destroy the photos and note now more than ever, but now, more than ever, he didn't dare, for fear that the herder would show up while he was doing it, or that someone would show up to investigate the incident of the helicopter hijacking, and catch him.
After a period of torment, Renzo belatedly remembered what he had been taught since childhood. If something didn't line up with official policy, he was supposed to adjust his memory, trusting that reality was better understood by officials. This wasn't a textbook case of when a person should adjust his memory, but it was close enough to suit Renzo, given his present mood and circumstances. Soon, he had his stories, and thus his thoughts, into better order. The impossible theft of government property hadn't happened, much less in front of his own eyes. The herder, who presumably always was there to receive her supplies, was presumably there today. There was no need to fret about the hidden photographs, because of course it should never have occurred to him to look behind a portrait, much less a sacred one, so he was innocent of that offense. He was a good Citizen Officer. He was a good Citizen Officer, indeed. Tomorrow, and the day after that, and for however long he lived, he could aim to be the best Citizen Officer who had ever been assigned to this cabin. He fell asleep resolved to achieve that aim.
Here's a chapter from The Birdwatcher.
But, of course, we all know how hard it is to keep resolutions (especially for men like Renzo).
Just a 60-something American woman who's been writing for publication since 1979. I started out as a newspaper reporter, and branched out from there.