The Dictator’s Wife

The dictator’s wife rose before the sun and washed her face in cold water. There was no sink in the penthouse, so she poured the water from a chipped pitcher into a basin large enough to bathe her youngest child.

The children slept three to the bed. The dictator’s wife took the coverlet from her own mattress and covered them with it.

A maid brought in a covered tray. The woman was of lower class, rough in look and dress. She never spoke, only set the new dishes on the table and cleared away the previous night’s. The dictator’s wife poured herself coffee from a glass decanter and listened to the door click shut behind her.

These few hours belonged to her. She thought of her husband. She hadn’t seen him in weeks, and the children had stopped asking about him. The dictator had been a loving father and a doting husband. He had only been a private in the army when they’d met, when he swore he would build her a palace to shame the sun. He had, on top of the slum where she’d lived with her family. When it had finished construction he had taken her hand and run, laughing, through the empty loveliness.

One of her children stirred, dragging her up from the past. She turned her mind to setting out the covered dishes, serving her children breakfast.

They supped at a table near a barred bay window that looked out on a pond. In warmer times, the children had been taken out by a nanny to visit the water. They begged her still to take them out.

A knock at the door startled her into dropping her toast. A dark-uniformed guard entered, gun lowered.

“My lady,” he said, “I’ve been sent to notify you. You have five minutes. Please be ready when I return.”

He pulled the door sharply shut. The dictator’s wife held onto her youngest child’s hand until her heart calmed.

Though the children complained, they abandoned the food. She bullied them into their clothes, fighting the youngest’s feet into stubborn shoes. Her own clothes were few. She’d been allowed to take only a fraction of her wardrobe when they’d fled the palace. She dressed in a skirt and jacket of dark plum that were from a European designer. She only wore European couture. Her necklace alone cost more than her family would have made in three lifetimes.

Four and a half minutes later, the guard was back. The dictator’s wife was struggling into Gucci pumps and the middle child, the only girl, had her blouse still untied. The guard motioned them into the hall with the muzzle of the gun. The dictator’s wife silently obeyed, herding her children in front of her.

There were three more guards in the hall. At an unsaid signal they began walking with the dictator’s wife and her children between them. She tied her daughter’s blouse as they walked.

“Such a lot of guards,” she said, “are we to be moved again?”

The guards said nothing. They had always been politely deferential, but taciturn. She could expect nothing from them as they walked a long hall.

They came to a green metal door set into the concrete of the wall. It had been chipped in several places as if battered by a great force. The guard leading the group nodded. The guard at the door returned the nod and opened the door. Without touching them, the guard behind the dictator’s family ushered them through the door.

The room beyond the door had plain white walls, and a plain white floor with a large drain set in it.

The dictator’s wife fell to her knees.

“No,” she said, “oh no, no.”

The guard that had entered behind them shut the door firmly.

The dictator’s wife held her open palms up to the guard. “Please—for my children, please!”

The guard shook his head. He seemed no more upset than if executing a parade maneuver. He raised his arm.

Wait,” she gasped, “wait, wait, wait! Let us leave! We never did anyone harm! We will go away forever, we will become nothing!”

The guard said, “you already are,” and let his arm drop.

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