The Circular Republic

Shaun Rouser

The islanders gave little attention to the first discovery. The only local report was, in point of fact, an Associated Press story of seven hundred and fifty-three words, which briefly ran online at The Daily Republic, but was never published in its print edition. It said, in part, under the unaffected headline, "Archeologists find replica of house 20 feet underground,"

Archeologists in the tiny Caribbean island of St. Maria made a startling discovery when a site excavation yielded an exact replica of the house. The find occurred in the Hamilton neighborhood, which lies in the southeast section of the capital, Les Cloches. . . . The homeowners, who asked to remain nameless, called authorities when their Shetland Sheepdog had dug a hole so deep that it needed to be rescued. But by the time Animal Protection and Rescue League officials arrived, the dog had stopped its downward path and had begun burrowing in a ninety-degree angle . . . uncovering what turned out to be a home identical to the one above. . . . The layout of the excavated house was a meter-by-meter mirror. . . . "This is fiction come to life. I would have never, not in a million years, imagined such a thing was possible. I mean, what are the chances?" said Harvard University Professor Howard J. Mortlemeyer, who was invited to the site by officials at St. Maria College. . . . Island officials offered little comment. The mayor's office called the news "interesting," but referred all questions "as a matter of expertise" to those performing the dig while the Office of the National Government directed all questions to the mayor. . . . St. Maria is one of the world's smallest and least populated countries. It measures just over 100 square kilometers and has a population of about 40,000 people, 25,000 of whom live in the capital. . . . "I'm trying to keep myself from thinking that this impossibility could be repeated elsewhere, here in St. Maria or even in another country. But I wouldn't have thought this possible, so why not somewhere else?" Mortlemeyer said. . . .

The people of St. Maria didn't return to their lives after the discovery, because for them nothing had changed, even as the size of the excavation site increased and beneath the neighboring homes the same marvel was found. A month later the country's yearly independence celebration went ahead as planned. Every light in Les Cloches was cut off and bells rang from 11:49 p.m., when the metaphorical first shot of what became the War of Independence was fired, until 12:00 a.m., when three years later almost to the day St. Maria's first day as an independent nation began.[1] Over the next few months and years, seemingly every inch of the island became an excavation site, amateur and professional. In their spare time, many St. Marians, who otherwise appeared unfazed by what was taking place, jabbed shovels into dirt or jackhammers into concrete in their homes or places of work, which one British television reporter described as "acts of sweaty hobby rather than labored curiosity." They nevertheless uncovered point-by-point copies beneath their feet. Foreigners experienced the same results. Unlike St. Marians, many of the island's visitors dug up public areas, such as parks and roads. Initially, the St. Marian government called these acts vandalism and banned the sale of any tools to visitors of any kind—students, tourists, foreign dignitaries[2]—that could be used to dig. This law floundered and was reversed, however, when people began using ladles and their hands. [3] [4] Professional archeologists were as successful as the amateurs. They found mirror images beneath St. Maria College and beneath the city square in Les Cloches, where after much back and forth, work was allowed to proceed in the area: beneath the ten-foot granite pillar commemorating the war for independence was another ten-foot granite pillar inscribed with verbatim text: "Let No Generation Lose What Has Been Earned." A Colombian report of the event said, "For the first time, St. Marian society reacted with a collective, if also temporary, shudder."

By all estimates, the discoveries had been built around 2 CE—every road, bridge, building, and school—news which prompted the first statement from the Office of the National Government. It read:

These are momentous times for our country and people. We all learned as schoolchildren the history of this island, which for many of us began in earnest with the arrival of the Europeans in the eighteenth century. We have now discovered the depths of the history that was taken from us. A period that was myth now has life. God willing we will learn more.

It had been nearly seven years since the first "inexplicable treasure"[5] was found. "It may be an exaggeration to say, though not by much, that all of St. Maria has been excavated," said an Australian television reporter, "But one place remains untouched: the seat of government itself. The unassuming building behind me, constructed of what was a colonial courthouse and prison,[6] is where the nation's thirteen-member governing panel meets and is now the center of international attention." The St. Marian government first ignored calls to begin the excavation of its grounds, hoping, some said, that the questions would pass. But those questions did not. And, by this time, there was ample support among the people of St. Maria to, as a French commentator wrote, ". . . discover the truth of themselves and perhaps of humanity itself." As all of its proceedings were, the Office of the National Government broadcasted its discussion of the issue live.[7] The meetings lasted four days and featured input from academics, diplomats, engineers, and St. Marians with seemingly no qualifications other than the fact they held citizenship and opinions. An American commentator called the proceedings "the most-watched city council meeting in world history." Late in the morning of the fifth day, the Office of the National Government voted ten to two with one abstention to begin the excavation "as soon as feasibly possible or within one year of its vote" and said it would move to a temporary location, an annex to the mayor's office, while the excavation took place. Across the world, nations released statements of support,[8] culminating in a United Nations resolution that did the same and was unanimously approved.

Work began promptly, only seven weeks following the ONG's decision. This time, however, even the people of St. Maria closely followed what was taking place. Though there was little in terms of day-to-day news, the St. Marian media offered daily reports. Mortlemeyer, the archeologist leading the effort, became a national celebrity. He was given St. Marian citizenship before the first mounds of dirt had been lifted from the ground. Nevertheless, a South African writer called the dig "Possibly the only question to which everyone on Earth knows the answer." It was, therefore, unsurprising what was found.

[1] As often happens, St. Maria's War of Independence began with a whimper and became a bang. It was a Tuesday, mundane and dusk. A Euronative, as those of European descent but born on the island were called, walking arm in arm with his wife, bumped into a St. Marian, who, as fate decided, was also walking arm in arm with his wife. The Euronative demanded an apology, which the St. Marian refused to give. The argument escalated into a fight, during which someone—The St. Marian? His wife? Accidentally, perhaps, the Euronative's wife?a—wrestled away the Euronative's handgunb and shot him through the stomach. He survived until the ambulance's arrival and inexplicably his breath continued a few hours more, until he finally died in a hospital bed, time of death 11:49 p.m. A quarter of the island's native population died in the ensuing war.

[2] Tourism, always the island's main business, increased so much that the government temporarily suspended all travel to the country. One citizen, urging the government to act, said if nothing was done "Planes would eventually be crashing into people sleeping on the runways." After visits to the island resumed, a German newspaper dubbed the nation "Airbnb Island."

[3] Another factor in lifting the ban was that increased demand for digging tools had further boosted the economy.4 e

[4] Doomsayers and the hopeless of every religious and irreligious stripe also pilgrimaged to the island. A Baptist of considerable wealth from the American Midwest rented a four-hundred-forty-foot cruise ship to circle St. Maria on the April morning of the eschaton. They returned home, however, unfazed by the absentee rapture, their faith unshaken. Cancer patients, for instance, swam naked at the island's beaches.e f

[5] "Inexplicable treasure" was coined by the United Nations Secretary General following a visit to the island.i Not a center of international diplomacy before its "treasure" was discovered, St. Maria increasingly restricted visits from world officials as more of the island was excavated.

[6] The prison was, in point of fact, unacknowledged by the colonial administration, though it served as the entry point for detainees who were deemed enemies of the state.l Such people were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and sometimes killed in the undisclosed, windowless prison cells. See references 1, a, and c.

[7] Following its independence, St. Maria instituted a policy of "absolute openness" in all "non-vital national security matters."m See reference 6.

[8] After it was discovered an American naval vessel was near the island, the US said it was "monitoring the situation" and had offered the St. Marian government its "full support." This prompted the Venezuelan president to say "The Americans should watch their imperial step," among other things.

a Who fired the shot has never been definitively answered. The Euronative's wife hanged herself days after his death, having never spoken to investigators. The St. Marian and his wife, both of whom were arrested that evening, each claimed responsibility and eventually died in custody—him beaten and bloodied a week later,c and her a year after the Euronative's death during a botched rescue attempt in the midst of the war. Both their bodies were cremated. Eyewitness accounts were inconsistent. The murder weapon was lost to history.

b Guns were and are legal in St. Maria, though then as well as now, owning one requires licensing from the central government. During colonial days, this was an effective ban for St. Marians.d

c This murder was never solved.

d The few St. Marians who were members of the island's police force or the colonial power's military, a detachment of which was stationed there, possessed weapons but were stripped of them when not on duty.

e See reference 2.

f Public nudity was illegal on the island, but to deal compassionately with the number of lawbreakers, the government legalized nude sunbathing and swimming for "the purposes of healing, or attempting to heal, ameliorating, or attempting to ameliorate, terminal and other grievous, pain-causing diseases and ailments" at beaches the law designated "comfort beaches."g

g Even with this measure passed, so many people crowded the island's beaches that some could not comfortably partake.h This prompted hotels and private residencies to offer their pools for healing. "It cured my lupus," a South Korean paper quoted a young man about his experience floating in a St. Marian's above-ground pool.

h See references 2, 3, and 4 regarding the island's increase in tourism.

i This comment was made during a press conference upon the Secretary General's return to New York City. To decrease the number of people who would have to travel to the island with foreign dignitaries, press conferences by visiting officials were curtailed greatly, in effect banning them altogether,j thereby minimizing the number of reporters who would need to accompany any delegation.k

j One exception was made for American officials. The US twice sent its Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, both times holding solo press conferences in Les Cloches.

k This also maximized the number of available hotel rooms for tourists. See reference h.

l The former colonial power admitted the former prison's existence, as well as the abuses that took place there, four decades after the St. Marian War of Independence.

m Some foreign powers unsuccessfully lobbied the ONG to designate the excavation of its seat a vital national security matter, thereby making its deliberations secret.