2020 submission, yet to be published
I am set to work every day, and if I do not work, then the day does not exist. Days keep on like I don’t wish they would end in the morning, pray they stop at noon, and beg by evening for some relief. I am consumed daily by heat that shrivels me to nothing in the field. Survival, at the end of each day, is surprising. I’ve never known my back as anything but sore, but there’s nothing a back can be when all I’ve ever known to be doing is cutting cane sugar. My hands, too, were born sore and scratched by the cheek-cutting leaves and the dull machetes missing their marks. I would miss on purpose some days just to stand up straight in the shade and bleed, but I never bleed long enough. Supervisors keep a close eye on that stuff anyway.
A supervisor came up to me once, but I kept my head down. I’ve never lifted my head in all my life, I don’t know how. The smell of him made my eyes shiver with I don’t know what. Could’ve been anger. Could’ve been tears. Maybe both, if I knew how to be anything but sore. He smelled like sweating cotton shirts and the oranges he ate every hour on the hour. A bag of them were hitched to his horse, and the peels he tossed at us for fun. I wonder if they taste like they smell.
We work until the sun goes down, and the surprise follows. I am allowed to stop, to return with the others to our cabins and cots and long nights. Myself and the other workers, maybe a score of us were daily worn and sun-beaten, collapse on our weeping cots and fall into a dark silence. There were lights to turn on, but there was no need for light in a place like this. There is nothing to see, so it is dark. Perhaps the dark will embolden reality to change into something different. There is nothing to talk about, so the night is quiet.
At night I wonder about wondering. Nothing passes through my mind, but something should. No faces materialize. I can’t even remember the look of myself. Do I have eyes? I’ve never looked another man in the face in all my life, and maybe none of us have eyes. If I couldn’t feel them, I would suspect they were myth. I think of the cane sugar, stalks of green and yellow and brown, but the memory of it all blurs together. I will forget altogether what they look like until the morning. My memory says I glanced once at a stalk of cane sugar, but only for a moment and long ago – and that’s all I know. If only the pain were as stubborn to come to me.
And the hunger is immense. It is bone deep. I have never before eaten. Like images of cane sugar, of myself, the taste of food lives shriveled. I don’t know the taste of water. No memories of sweet tea or whiskey, nothing’s ever passed my lips – not even sweat. All the supervisors do is sweat – wiping it out of their eyes and off their necks, staining the armpits of their shirts and knees of their trousers. All I do is burn, combust, and dry out under their watch. Something deep in my gut expects to smell sweat now, but there’s nothing. Not even the rot of cabin wood or the pond-muck mud of the floor makes its way to me. There is so much expectation just under my skin that I cannot satisfy. No sound, no smell – all I know is the sore ache between my shoulders and the burn of the sun on my skin still at odds with the chill I cannot shake.
I don’t remember ever sleeping, not once in all my life.
Another day. Just like the last, we are handed our machetes, I’ve got number 27 this time, and told “get to work.” The supervisors have the smell of eggs on their beards and glasses of sweet tea in their hands. The sun hits my shoulders, the back of my head like a brand, and I watch water pebble off the glass and roll over orange knuckles. One supervisor yawns and talks about a dream featuring a woman on her back. I’m told to look where I’m aiming with #27.
The day goes on as it normally does, all but for a visit from the landlord and his wife. She and the landlord have brought special snacks for the supervisors, handing them out with smiles in their voices. We don’t look them in the face — I’ve never looked anyone in the face – but when a pair of dainty shoes steps into the grass at my head, I know it’s the landlord’s wife. Supervisors order us to stop cutting because the landlord wants to look at the crop, and it makes him nervous having us workers swinging knives around. All I can do is look at her shoes. They’re small, but polished to a shine. Black like beetles and just as naïve as they get closer to me. To my machete. She gets so close and the sun is so bright, I can see a ghost in her shoes gently swaying. The ghost becomes the gesture of a face. My face.
The shoe falls away as the landlord’s wife trips on a felled cane stalk. A platter of scraps fall with her. In the chaos, I forgot to have never seen a face before. Her features are so clear to me, so defined and real. Eyes and a mouth, a hairline, one ear is larger than the other, and her lips are thin and delicate. I forget if the sugar cane bends right or left today, if it even existed at all, but the nose of the landlord’s wife is tall. I don’t even know if that is how I can describe a face, but it seems right. It also seems right to know the look in her eyes is sadness for me. Do I have eyes, like her? Are mine, too, sad? I’ve never seen a pair of eyes before, are they all like this? Quickly, the landlord’s wife tucks something under my shoe and rolls over to accept the help of her husband. She is escorted back to the house, complaining loudly about her dress. It kicks up an attentive stir and the supervisors follow. Me and the other workers are left alone.
We’ve never had a break before. I’ve never stood in the cane field, motionless, without bleeding. My eyes move from the shoulder to the neck to the backs of the workers around me, wondering what it is we’re meant to be doing, if anything at all. We are all listless. And then I remember the landlord’s wife and her eyes. I check under my shoe and find nestled in the grass a scrap of food, something hard and covered with flakes of white that the supervisors had been crunching amiably. I picked up the food and opened my mouth for the first time. I set it on my unused tongue.
I tasted salt.
I feel the wind and my own fatigue. I feel the calluses on my hands from the 27th machete and hear the rush of blood in my ears which had never been there before. It was a deafening tide of blood and heat, and the fear of losing it and returning to my perpetually cold silence shakes my bones. My knees buckle with the weight of a lifetime knitting itself back into my muscles and the membranes of my eyes. My skin is heated, my limbs thicken with the burn and stretch of action where they’d once been mechanical and ordered and empty. And my mind! I can hear and recognize the sounds of birds, the croaking of frogs, and the moaning of my own mouth. The smell of the wind I can take apart as flowers and river water and camping smoke and gasoline.
Around me the other workers stand calmly, quietly, swaying in the breeze they can’t smell or remember; puppets slouched and dangling with the last command. None of them look me in the eye. Their faces are sallow, their chests thin and empty; they’re beaten, from the inside out. Dead, yet walking. Perpetually waiting.
I step out of my line and see the field for what it is; lines of bodies, siphoned of life, waiting for the next order, for the next day of restless work in a world they cannot remember. The supervisors are coming back. One sees me and starts shouting to the others. They run. I run. None of the other workers look up from staring at nothing. I remember staring at nothing.
I run through the field and take a blind path through the trees. Someone is shouting behind me, but I don’t look back. A gunshot. I keep running. I remember gunshots. My brother and I would shoot out back, making target practice out of rusted tin cans and cracked bottles. More shouting. Mother would shout if we tried to shoot her good bottles.
The supervisors give up long, but I still run. I can taste salt on my lips, and it’s sweat. I can sweat again. My feet take me somewhere. Home, I think. I run all day and for the first time, I am not surprised to see the sunset. It’s beautiful.
That night I dream of home. I have a wife and children. I can remember their faces. Mother is there, too, teaching the babies – my babies — about plants, like she taught me. No one can grow a fern as big as Mother can. I can’t walk through her house without running into a green frond. It’s them I see as I settle in the dark. I can sleep. I can cry too. This, too, burns, but it’s a living burn.
I pass an orange tree on my way home and taste one for the first time – but I remember eating them before. I don’t know which life to think of as mine: what I know is true, or what I thought was real in the fields. Both, I think. Biting into that orange is magical. Liberating. Much sweeter than I thought, all the more for starving. I am still sticky with the orange juice when I get to where my feet take me.
My family is on a hill decorated in stones. There are names on the stones. Dates and families and words etched and left to face the elements. My feet take me to one of these stones, but it’s askew, dug up from the ground and tossed to the side and never put right. Like I know I have eyes, like I know the taste of salt, like I know the sound of a bird, I know it’s my name on that stone. Beneath my name is a time that must’ve been long ago. Weeds grow over the letters that have aged into illegibility, but I know it’s mine. I know. I know. I wipe at what used to be letters. I scrape out the trenches of what used to be me with fingernails, scratching away moss and beetle husks and crumbs of stone. I clean it until it resembles a word, a date, a symbol that I lived, at least once, well enough to be carved into stone. Not well enough to be left in peace. The grass is old. Seemingly undisturbed. How long was I cutting cane sugar? How long was I dead, like the others, and taken from my memories? I pick at the grass until I’m bringing up handfuls of dry dirt, crabgrass, and pebbles.
I want to go back. I want to return to something natural, to where I’m supposed to be. I was taken, used, and I can’t forget it. I want to return to my family and forget what cane sugar looks like.
Clawing at the dirt is futile, but I claw until my hands bleed. It’s painful, more than bleeding used to be and I sit in the dirt and watch it all become mud. Night falls and I hate the sunset. Without the light, nothing seems real. I can’t see my name, or the other stones around me. Reality might change in the dark, like I hoped it would, but for the worse. A part of me wants to return to the field where nothing could get worse: where nothing could be taken from me anymore.
The next morning, I find a river and wash my hands. On the other side of the bank, two girls walk hand-in-hand collecting flowers and pretty rocks like little girls do. One jumps around, trying to catch a frog. Together they sing a sweet little song, a hymn. One of those organic, unrefined songs made with soul. I sit in the mud and listen:
It’s the Lord’s blessing that we now enjoy.
It’s the Lord’s blessing that we now enjoy.
Sweet Lord, have mercy.
Have mercy, Lord.
I hope they never know what cane sugar looks like.
Beside me, I see my answer, my mercy. Listing in the gentle breeze is a water hemlock, beautiful and reaching with petite white clusters of flowers, but dangerous. Avoid it, Mother said. Never eat it, or you’ll never eat anything again. I am not starving for food.
The girls laugh together, and I want to see my children. I want to smell my wife’s skin and hear her voice and feel the heat of human skin against my own. She warms me like no one else can; warmed not only my body, but my mind and future. The memories become haunting, out of reach and fragmented that I want to scream. My back is sore, but my insides quake with an aching I don’t want to get used to. I grab the hemlock and pull it from the mud, drag it through the river, and bite into the root. I think of cane sugar as I chew. I see the landlord’s wife. I chew past the cramping in my jaw and the black spotting of my vision. The girls continue to sing, but I can’t make out the words.
I lay down and watch the sky until I can no longer see. I feel the cold water creeping up my leg until I can no longer feel. Even through the bitterness of the root, I still taste the orange until my tongue stops working. The girls sing until I can no longer hear. I hope my body will be left alone this time.
I pray the others might taste salt.