By Justin Hogg
It wouldn’t be much longer until he was free. He held his own captivity in a loose grip, his bondage an excited child on timeout. They had transported him and about twenty or so other men by bus to the work zone for years now: Monday through Saturday — off days on Sunday, hidden away from God’s moderate concern.
The other men daily piled onto the bus were always different: fresh bodies who hadn’t done the job long enough to grow tired yet. Young arms and legs, confident and plump, well-nourished, just hauled in from another county or upstate. But for the man who had always sat in the very back of the bus, his long legs stretched out under the torn faux leather, this was a repeated script.
The first bus rides would no doubt be a lively act, men smacking their gums and thighs, singing the latest radio songs, howling with each other about the warden’s wife’s perfume and her milk-flesh, so untouched that a speck of dirt could usually be seen floating through the air, attracted to the small patch of her open chest as she walked through their quarters worn on his arm. But if one were to skip ahead in the act by a few days, they would find something different about the men, some unnamed set of events that ate away at their liveliness bit by bit, surely to have occurred in the parts skipped over. Perhaps it was that smell. Or the altered color of their hands which they couldn’t fully scrub away the night before. Maybe it was the silence in the fields after the unceasing “THUMP.” The same group of vultures approaching from the west daily, tracking and soaring amongst the fumes of the old bus as it pulled in, feather to feather, perching their talons on the pencil thin branches about 50 meters away from the zone.
He would watch all of these anachronisms, the man who had been there since the beginning, with faces often mistaken for the victims of lobotomy, those who had their resolve taken away. But if one adamantly studied his features, the way he reacted, carried himself, then they would find that he possessed the greatest resolve of any of the workers on the bus, and not simply because he was surrounded by a new cast every week, nor due to the fact that he had been there for so long. For he knew that, unlike the face of a man, the zone showed its guests just one face, the same face that the buzzards saw when they looked through their black beads in unison, the same face that the bus driver saw in the loading on and off of the workers and swift reversal back up the interstate, even from the safety of his seat. The zone hid not behind a summer veil, didn’t freeze over in winter, nor did it shed its coat for spring. It lay over the soil as one lay a sheet over the tepid frame — with soft assurance.
Stepping off the bus would always hush the new men’s crowing. What replaced their caws was the dragged out wah of a Potoo instead. As for the man there from the beginning as well as the returning workers who, already in their minds, were planning on transferring to a mining or highway job, the initial shock had worn away. And when one can no longer be shocked, they are slowly beaten.
But especially for this man, as tarry as the eternal rain clouds above, who had read the words, “Jedem das seine” some years ago trampling down the gates of one of many man-made hells and not knowing what they meant until some years later, this face still hidden to the majority of the workers was nothing for him: he had acknowledged it long ago. With an acknowledgement, two parties could move towards working as equals, and as soon as a uniform leveling came into existence, one side could be levelled. This was work. Abject yes, but he would always tell himself, “I will be free soon, for the first time in my entire life.” And he would say to the others often unprovoked, “Soon, no one will have to do this work.” But these two phrases spoken in dignant clarity remained obscured, and it wasn’t the tarry clouds or foggy landscapes that provided this obfuscation. Those few who called him comrade or knew him in some tangential manner had heard him say these things and accepted their truth like a skipping record. If only the dust could settle over the deep groove. None, not even those close to him, received them like a prophecy. For all, his words were nothing more to most than the child stuck in their room, face first against a wall, toys bundled up and locked away in some unknown closet. And yet, no one dared infantilize the man. Deep down there remained the aching assertion: what if his words were to prove true?
We have been referring to this place that the workers were now standing in as “the zone” because that is what it was called by the contractors, those men who were equally as disposable and faceless as the majority of the workers but who held power over them for one reason: the light rattle of their pockets as they passed by the quarters on Sunday mornings, and with the flick of a thumb, a nickel or a dime shot between the rusted bars. The men would pounce on this currency like scraps of food — money for drugs or stamps. (Not that we accept the language of the contractors, quite the contrary. It’s just that we find names ineffectual.) The man who had been there since the beginning was always receiving and sending letters, at least twice a week. None of the other men ever knew who to or from, only noticed the centripetal nature of their flow — always in the process of writing and reading, sending and receiving, never waiting. The other men, who would stick their necks through the bars only to be touched by the trench coats and neck ties passing by never once saw the man who had been there since the beginning beg like they had, or even move from his self-made stool in his cell. And yet, he always had paper, pens, stamps, envelopes.
Of course, there were all kinds of true and false stories about this man. Stories which would explain his unfair access to resources. The kinds of stories which, repeated so often amongst the other men became powerful enough to stand as myths. Myths which outlived and moved beyond men and their sentences. One such myth was that many years ago, when the man’s knees weren’t completely useless, he had been notorious for hopping the nearly 30ft tall barbed fence that the men only saw on their way to and return from work every day. He had hopped the fence and took off into the thick forests so many times that eventually the warden had to chain two heavy steel balls to the man’s ankles. Laughing in the heavy azure of the loading zones, the man called these his cajones and didn’t jump again for some time. Doubters said he couldn’t, that the weight was too great. Believers said that it was a choice, the wise old man building the suspension and tension of the opera. One day, the believers were redeemed. In plain sight of everyone, he jumped right over the fence, his body so high in the hair, thrust with so much force, that he blotted out the sun for a few moments. His impact on the other side sounded harshly loud like a redwood tree uprooted and falling to the ground but also as quiet as a tiny bird settling onto a grass field. And he took off. When he was inevitably caught again, they put him in a cell with only himself for many years, and when he came out, he never hopped the fence again. Only wrote his letters, and worked in the zone. Hundreds of men came and went, so much so that there were now a majority of doubters, and a minority of believers. The believers swore that one day, any day now, he would jump the fence again.
To the space just outside the zone, where millions of humming inhabitants lived, some of which were documented as homeless, this was known as “the island.” It was reachable only by the bus which had carried over the men (there was a “sister” visitor bus run by the prison as well) and over the Grisham bridge. The waters which enclosed this island had a two to three meter layer of muck at its edge in which other birds and fowl who weren’t in any way concerned with the island’s prizes congregated in benevolent ignorance.
Daily on this island, the faces of every age and color appeared, and none of the workers ever seemed to question why. The only appropriate answer they could work out was that these people enjoyed being slated the color of iron. One would expect them to rust at some point, but they always appeared the same harsh gray. The workers, who didn’t realize the light rain falling on their heads, as it seemed to now drop squarely over the zone and nowhere else, had to pass by these hands rubbing together, these coats huddled, these boots firmly digging into the surface of the mud, which, as they would come to know, was the consistency of the zone’s entire area. They were forced to pass by these drab and hopeless faces everyday — faces which were always different, always the same, because the entrance and the exit to the zone were married together.
As the new workers lined up and awaited some kind of instruction or someone to appear who knew what they were doing, they began to stir. Minutes passed, the solidness of the mud beneath their boots becoming spongier like cake.
One of them suddenly blurted out, “What in the fuck are we supposed to do here?”
And the one who had been there since the beginning, who had heard this question any number of times in his countless years replied, “We wait for the trucks.” The new workers, murmuring to themselves, thought the man, who they didn’t realize was so large until he was standing with them in the rain, was mad. How would a truck fit through the low opening of the gate just beyond them? What did he know anyway, this man with the busted knees that they had heard about only in half remembered pieces? Lost in their murmurings, no one observed the wail of the bus that had transported them scuttling away like a house cat crossing the street.
As the men continued to budge at the idleness, they heard two distinct sounds, the first a slow, screaming gate, which as it opened in full revealed a vast mud horizon, separated on either side only by a road just wide enough for a…? The second sounded like what many of them might expect a jet engine up close to be like, rushing and constant, building in depth as it moved towards them. Then, a line of massive trucks could be seen some distance away in the empty blue just before the zone’s entrance. The sun shined down on them, made them blister with dancing rays, but they soon ducked under the massive clouds of the zone and flattened out to a two-dimensional gray. Passing by the line of faces, by the men themselves, becoming engulfed on both sides by mud, the trucks swayed by, out of sight. The sensation that the men felt as they passed was akin to driving stride for stride with a commercial truck on the highway, the way the back moves to and fro, almost touching one’s eyes like a pendulum. The four trucks fit through the gate perfectly, like a child’s shape set, rectangles fitting into rectangle openings. Roars turned to whispers again. The man who had been there since the beginning followed the trucks through the gate at a slow pace, and the men, feeling the pressure of their blood now, without direction, followed him.
The thing that initially made them mortified was how fresh and damp the soil was. One might deduce that this was not the mud caked under a man’s fingers after burying his enemies, but his friend.
In no time they reached the trucks, whose lights were all pointed in their direction so that even if they wanted to, they could not make out the drivers. Congregating around these hollow lights, the men refused to dirty themselves with this new mud, standing around aimlessly like ants who had lost trace of food. The man who had led them to nowhere in particular stuck his hand deep into his back pocket as he always did before beginning this work. The workers’ eyes were glued to his actions, this man who had now become endowed with some kind of divine and repulsive aura. He pulled out a sallow piece of notebook paper — the kind one might find locked behind the glass pane of a museum exhibit, or floating near the entrance of a storm drain. He wiped the dust from his glasses, inspecting the sheet of paper with familiarity and care. As he was still reading its contents, one worker, who had been most vocal on the bus about his distaste for the warden, began to pace. This worker, who had been silent from the moment he got off the bus and arrived at this place, which, with sudden intensity, most of the new men had now regretted signing up for, spoke out. It was the same voice who asked at the gates what it was they were supposed to do.
“What is that?”
His words rang hollow. “That” could have been anything. “That” could have been the creeping smell from the back of the trucks, diffusing to join the men outside, could have been the white Pontiac approaching from the south that no one would hear for minutes even in the overwhelming silence of the zone, could have been the collective lump in the throats of the new workers, only swallowed down and overcome by this one worker for reasons the others could not understand at this time. But of course, “that” was the letter. It always was. The man who had been there since the beginning looked up slowly, placed the letter back in his pocket.
“It’s personal,” he replied.
The one who asked, scoffed, provoked, “Personal? How could any of us have anything ‘personal?’ You didn’t answer my question, what is it?”
Except that he didn’t receive a reply this time, and the man who asked, being a firecracker, the kind of man whose stubbornness is fueled by and increases in arguments, began again.
“Does it tell us what to do here? Or are we just gonna stand here in the fuckin’ mud watchin’ you read all day?”
And as the men just stood there, the one who kept asking, whose name was Miles, made it up in his mind already that no matter what happened, he was going to read the words on the man’s sallow sheet of paper. This was the kind of man that Miles was. Whatever wasn’t given to him he took. Though, if he were at all concerned with receiving an answer, he would have noticed that the man who had been there since the beginning had received his question with as much concern as he had given the letter. Now, however, he had moved beyond it.
“Why do you think they bring us here unchained?” The man who had just slipped the paper back in his pocket asked no one in particular, but everyone assumed he was asking Miles. At first, they thought it was a rhetorical question — no, it had concrete answers like every ontological query. He scratched his beard a bit, making exaggerated leaps with his eyes and brows; he must have been the only nigger consciously smiling within a 50 mile radius.
“Where would we run?” answered Donald, a man with a heavy chin and the arms of a teenager, who had worked in the zone for two weeks now. And of course his question was meant to be an answer. And of course the new men understood nothing, most of all Miles, whose brow kept tensing and untensing in silence under the ghostly light.
“No that’s not it.” The man was laughing softly now, scraping at the sides of his work pants.
“They bring us here unchained because they think we ain’t never gonna be free. They don’t think, they know. That’s how they are. They know. The warden knows, hell his wife knows too.”
All of the men were anxious, but if one could examine their faces one by one, panning slowly, they would focus most intently on Miles bursting at the jaw to say something.
“I’m gonna be free damn you,” he shouted, “freer than your self righteous ass. . . with your goddamn personal papers and shit. I’m gonna get out of this cage that the pigs put us in, and change shit on the outside.” He said other things to this effect, but muttered them mostly to himself, angrily, so that the others couldn’t hear.
“I’m sure you gonna be free brother. I’m out in a few months, gonna put my slick boots on, step on that city concrete. See my family, God willing.” The man who had been there since the beginning said all of this with a warm smile on his face, the kind of smile that could be seen as facetious though, if you didn’t know him too well.
“Then you gonna be free damn it, ain’t you?”
But before the man who had been there since the beginning could answer, the car door of the white Pontiac which none had heard approach slammed shut. It was maybe ten meters away from the group. Even parked in the thick mud, it was pristine, glimmering like a silverfish in a storage unit. Out walked two men, one dressed in head to toe white and the other in mostly black. The one in all white had dark bags under his eyes, hair messy and gray, liked to keep his hand in his pockets while he talked, tugging at something out of reach. The one in mostly black was clean shaven with buzzcut brown hair, and kept both of his hands down at the side of his waist, palms slightly open face. The one in white began to talk.
“For those of you who don’t know what you should be doing, let me remind you.”
“S-some of you s-should be in the dit-ditches and s-some of yous in the trucks .” The one in black had finished the one in white’s sentence, dominoes, but a few of the men weren’t following along, instead focusing on the large vultures, five or six of them circling overhead. They seemed to float directly over the white Pontiac. None of the men knew anything about birds but they sensed that the creatures were flying far too close to the ground to resemble any natural behavior. They must have been attracted to something below. The man in white leaned on the hood of the car, softly, gave a motion with his hand which seemed to indicate to get to it.
The man who had been there since the beginning broke the stagnancy, disappeared behind the light of the five trucks. Slowly, the men began to follow, last of all Miles, who kept eyeing the Pontiac with quick jutting movements. The man in white had some parting words for them as they left, which would remain with the men that day and forever.
“Make sure you unwrap them. If you’re lucky, it won’t be your only gift in this lifetime.” These words appeared villainous to most of the new workers, though they couldn’t put their finger on exactly how or why. Which is to say, villainous like the expected words of an antagonist in a story.
What they noticed first as they walked through the lights and beyond the trucks, not one could really tell you. Though the ones who would eventually put in their requests to work in the nearby mines would boisterously relate how they preferred the noxious underground gases to this poisoned open air any day, how, on a particularly pleasant day, they could feel its presence just around the corner. That it was precisely the pleasantness of a day or a profound experience that conjured it up out of thin air and turned it thick, heavy with images too close together to decipher. They would speak of how it wasn’t the immediate objects that made the air toxic, but rather the things that they represented, the truths they stood in for. No one has been able to explain it in words really.
Then there was the question of, as the man in black said, the “dit-ditches.” “Ditches” was a generous word. They were more like troughs. These depressions in the ground were so great that the Earth appeared to drop off into nothing beyond their beginning. In the fog, one couldn’t really make out the shape of these depressions, these gaps, but if the new men had to guess in accordance with the themes of the day, it would be a square. Probably an endless, perfectly symmetrical square. A square moon. The pressure drop. Facing nothing, not one of the new men leaned in the direction of foolishness- a hocked glob into the nether to see how deep the hole went. This was their first acknowledgement.
The man who had been there since the beginning, who was in one of the trucks already unwrapping the first gifts, would later (after freedom) speak of how the old cliche was true, namely that the abyss does look back at you. But he would refute that when he rolled it over in his mind. “Yes, there is something looking back, but it ‘aint the abyss.”
“I ain’t goin’ down there man,” replied Rodney, a short man with a powerful frame, especially his head on top of which sat an afro that miraculously kept its round frame even in the fog’s moisture. He gave this reply up to the presentation of the gap, his lump swallowed as well, because no one in particular had asked or cared what his plans were. This was Rodney’s first day on the job. He had been brought down from upstate over the weekend along with Miles on account of them running their mouths too much and spreading “communist propaganda,” to other men during lunch. The prison officers thought nothing of it when they would see books passed back and forth between like-skinned “juiced negroes.” The moment they began to see whites and other groups of men sitting in during these congregations at lunch though, they informed their superiors, who immediately had Rodney and Miles shipped down to a majority-black jail.
“Half of y’all need to be down there and the rest of y’all unwrapping and moving the shit into them holes. And some of you between the trucks for when the shit slides off and doesn’t make it. And don’t look down yet.” Rodney and the others heard these instructions from the man in the truck, who seemed no different in his manner of speaking or in his conviction, even when faced with such vast nothingness. Most of them would never stick around to find out, but the few that did would realize the inevitability of a man’s words and actions when doing this work.
“I told you I ain’t goin’ down there man. Some of you who are more existentially in tune can go on, but I ain’t gettin’ down in that hole like no damn dog.” And with indignance Rodney hopped up onto the back of the 2nd truck truck which was currently unoccupied, talking to himself, cursing and laughing. The other men watched and realized just how much the back of the truck’s opening resembled the gap beyond their steps. Seemingly endless, dark, vast. Square. And in no time, through the ruffling of paper, Rodney emerged from the back of the truck, doe-eyed. The new workers would remember always the first sound of the paper in which the gifts were wrapped, a shear like the tiny opening of a wound when brushing against a busted branch. Waiting for him to say something further, what the men saw instead was Rodney doubled over from the height of the truck, chucking up his lunch from earlier that day — pea soup and turkey. He had looked down. Except that there was no janitor to clean the mess up, no school official to comfort and send him to the nurse’s office. Left to nothing but his own words, emaciated, stomach rapt and empty, he muted his conviction completely. Passing by the hushed men, he dropped into the gap. He would thus become a doll, to do only what was programmed of his body.
“No one wants to work with the gifts, brother. Not at first at least.”
And the men followed, breaking up, wordless, just like that. Even Miles, who was visibly shaken, who previously had so many angry words for the man who had been there since the beginning. No, Miles was in fact the second one into the gap, shadowed by eight or so other new men, while the rest hopped in the trucks and began unwrapping with that same shear highlighting every movement. The man who had been there since the beginning operated like a wave, oscillating between each of the trucks, offering the new workers who were gagging and in dead silent words of encouragement. “No one should have to do this work, brother,” he said, and “We will all be free one day.” This didn’t exactly calm the men, at least not immediately. But long after the man was free, and the sentences broke apart and formed together again like powder in liquid, they remembered these words, as they searched for new tools and grammars of dealing with things, as each man interrogated his own definition of freedom.
In the present, the men on the trucks slid those parts unwrapped into the holes, one after the other, just as the man instructed them to. The men on the trucks had no sight or connection to the men in the holes, just as the men in the holes had no sight or connection to the men on the trucks. Both acts were a part of a severed body, reaching with partially cut tendons and strained muscles to touch the other in vain. The key was to move swiftly, for when the trucks and the holes switched places, their work was done. The men on the trucks found it to be particularly horrifying work as they had no tether to solid reality — other than the gifts. With each new unwrapping-sliding-unwrapping they had only the body of the machine casket underneath to ground them. This must be hell, most of them thought. Faced with hundreds, no thousands of the gifts, each different in shape and size but exactly the same in feeling. Dusty, rough. If one man made the grave mistake of looking down as Rodney had instead of just grabbing and pulling the cargo off the truck, he might have seen also how the movements coalesced. A collection of dirt, ash, dust, to go into the ground to become converted to dirt, ash, dust. And the men in the holes, greeted by a THUMP every ten seconds, like an alarm that wouldn’t stop. With only their ears to guide them to the pieces of discarded cargo, each man in the nothing of the pit tried to stack the cargo respectfully, but there was no blueprint. How could one read a blueprint with nothing but their ears, nothing but their hands? But the men on the ground, in the thin space between the trucks and the deep holes, might have had it worst of all. Their boots touching the mud that connected both parties to this act, their hands sometimes helping pull the haul off the truck. Neither here nor there. For a moment Miles, deep in the pit, felt the shock of the impossibility of those faces just outside the gate. Had they come here to sift through the piles they were unloading? If so what would they find? How would they find?
And what words could the men possibly have after finishing this work? After the trucks were empty and the holes were filled? There were no stories to be transformed into myths. This was a shared secret, a shared horror.
Everyday the vultures were there. Who knew if they were the same or had flown in from somewhere else? It felt as if they were the same though, a kind of mutual recognition shared between distant, anxious glances. Everyday the trucks were there, their backs exposed to nothing. The clean white Pontiac, the same binaristic men, dressed as if ready to bet on a horse race. Miles had stayed on for some time now, to no one’s surprise. Surprise didn’t exist in such a place. If a man stayed on then he stayed on, and if he left then he left. Rodney had requested the mines, a more tangible death than this. And so he left. Other men had shifted places — Miles now worked on the trucks with the man who had been there since the beginning. But not one knew of the hatred Miles felt for this man, whose name he didn’t even know, who would passionately read from the same piece of sallow paper every morning like some kind of conductor reading his notes while Miles could hardly keep his food down, let alone write anything to his comrades outside. Miles, who found it hard sleeping, had terrible nightmares even when awake. What made this man so different? What was written on the paper that gave him such clarity and steadfastness? A man had to have a name, how else could he be addressed, taken seriously? How else could he wake up to himself every day with the same inward anger that they must have been afflicted by? The paper had to contain his name, which would exhume his mystery.
And the man who had been there since the beginning went on about his freedom in these morning circles.
“Lose today, win tomorrow.”
Miles was losing everyday, he felt. The man’s words infuriated him. And anyway, there was no tomorrow here, only today.
One day, long after holding onto these feelings for longer than he should have, Miles stole the paper from the back pocket of the man who had been there since the beginning.
“This work, brother.” Miles had adopted the man’s vernacular as they stepped off the empty truck together. Placed a hand on his back, turned toward the darkness and grabbed for it. It made a similar wrinkled shear to that of the rest of the men unwrapping the cargo in the remaining trucks, and so, the man who had been there since the beginning and the others did not notice.
As they walked back to the bus, he said to Miles, “I wanted to ask when you are released, brother.”
Miles’s heart sank. He could think of nothing but the letter which was stuffed deep down in his front pants pocket.
“Eh, in two years, hopefully,” he lied.
“And do you think of your release as your freedom?”
“I mean, I got to, I’ll be free… not locked up anymore.”
“No no, it’s just I remember your first day here, and I just…” He paused for a second as they continued to walk. “Is it freedom still if they gift it to you, brother? I knew of a brother who got out, and when he got home he tried to make love to his woman, but his weight kept dragging to one side of the bed and pushing him off each time in the heat of the moment with a THUMP,” he smiled, “a different kind of THUMP from that which you are sure to have heard. When he tried to take his kids to the park he found that he couldn’t run or jump. When he was looking for work the employers kept glancing at his feet with nervous, quick eyes, and told him he wasn’t right for the job. Do you understand, brother?”
Miles nodded his head to get the man to stop talking.
“I was a highly recruited prospect once, my man. Basketball. You play?”
Miles said no.
“Ah, you play, you play! No?”
The man shoved Miles in the side with his elbow. Let out a rousing laugh.
“But my damn ACL man. Doctors said when I tore it for the second time, the ligaments weren’t coming back. You know what side?”
There were no words exchanged for a couple of seconds.
“My homeland side,” he finished, to which Miles didn’t respond.
Back in the barracks, Miles waited up all night with anticipation until the light peeked into his cell. Didn’t want to read it at night. Kept returning to the same line imported from elsewhere: “To escape from horror, as we have said, bury yourself in it.” Assigned meaning to these words. Unwrinkled the paper. Saw that it began with “My love” but the name had long faded away, or been smudged out, he couldn’t tell. Felt dirty for a creeping, sinking moment. Dirtier even than a week’s worth of work in the zone. A filth that moved beyond the body, and no artificial soaps could assuage the essence of the feeling. His little gift though, held tight in his ashy hands. Belonged to no one else. Continued reading:
My love ,
I write to you on the table you made for us. It looks and feels just as new as the morning you finished it. The oak was more than happy to oblige what was left of her body for you because she knew it would serve the both of us for many years. She must be distraught to know that it has only served me all of this time in your absence.
You must forgive me, I am sure you have noticed the air of poetics in my writing. I apologize because I know you can feel me trying in these words. It’s just that I have been so inspired by all that I have seen today, and had earlier written a few lines outside under our banana tree. As you wanted I have attached some working poems at the end of this letter. Remember how the last time you wrote to me you talked about seeing the world in words? How you can feel the writing coming, like a bird before a storm? You told me that sometimes you fly away from the storm, and other times head directly into the eye. I’ve felt the pull of the eye more and more these days, perhaps in anticipation of your liberation and perhaps not. Sweaty, the hot flashes of someone aching for your touch. I don’t take my pills any longer because I welcome the feeling of your breath hot against my neck, of your hands incensing the whole of my back. I know that these actions differ from the physical, from the metaphysical even and are indeed material. That the only thing they have in common with the sexual is their attachment to passion. No not even. The things I feel these days and nights are impassioned, impelling me towards liberation in some way to ultimately join you.
But I know our paths differ my sweet, my love(r), my comrade. They must before we can be together again. One day you were with me, and in that same day you didn’t return. Like the sun blotted out by a moving cloud for an instant. A long instant. Though, the sun is shining somewhere. But what of me, of us? No Jordan, no Zion, no Tenochtitlán. I await for you in Palmares my dear, the land they couldn’t capture for so long, the land they couldn’t even find with their fancy technologies, and the most difficult truth of all is that you know the way back but are restricted from taking it. You wish to return, but the state will not let you. Such differing definitions of liberation they have from us. They swallowed you up on that day and want to keep you. We know that there were some slaves in some places who hung themselves, locked their mouths, threw themselves overboard into the dark in resistance to the devil. But there were some who were thrown overboard as well, who were hung. Neither of these two groups, when their necks were snapped, when their lungs were filled with water, neither, woke up in the place from which they came. We also know that there were some Indians in the Americas before America who burned down their entire kingdoms rather than become slaves, rather than see their gods be converted to wealth in the fat hands of the eventual oppressors. Who stood singing silently behind the roaring crack of the flames. Who are your gods, my sweet? What is your wealth, my dear? What do you sing? I am rambling now . . .
and ask after you all the time. Not directly of course, they know the dangerous limitations of a name. But for instance, I readied them for the demonstrations downtown last Monday, which you have surely read about by now. I asked if they had everything they needed in their possessions. At the last possible moment before our leaving, hurried to his bed which is right by mine now and grabbed the baseball cards you sent him, stuffing them quickly into his coat pocket. He thought I didn’t see, your boy tries to be so strong for us, but I saw, and nearly cried. Everything does reminds me of you. The way he picks at his fingers, how he tries to find every kink in his hair, he walks in your shadow. And our beautiful . She sleeps early and talks often in her dreams, has conversations with you in Spanish and English. She is supremely quiet when she is awake, but in her sleep she talks and talks, as much as you. I read somewhere recently: “What does the wakeful know compared with what the dreamer knows?” I imagine knows much more than we do. She must know the last words of the last Taino, the names and attributes of a thousand gods, what water tastes like after being stranded in the desert for five days, the taste of a guanábana in the early morning, the moment when capitalism has no more treats to stuff itself on, and begins to gag, to gag like a dog in the back of an automobile.
You once told me jokingly that I was too intense. You must remember how I yelled and pushed back on the thought. Too many have called me such things. But furthermore, to me it showed your lack of understanding, which is bound up in our solidarity with one another. You split me vertically instead of relating to me in landscape. Do you see now the tiny stream running through my mother’s curly hair? It nourishes the free land fertilized by the stolen wheat and rice of the women of former Surinam. What about the branchless bush in the foreground of the canvas which you hastened to touch the first time? It has been rustled by the blue tiger on her voyage. And what of the purple of the sky that was made from crimson and indigo? The condor still rips through its color and devours our greedy enemies in a swift dip down. I challenged you not for my sake but for us and our interactions because these tendencies get reproduced and played out on a larger scale. You know what Ingeborg writes on fascism. I want to build community with you, even with you so out of reach, because I know there will come a time when we meet again, as if for the first time but with those feelings of déjà vu, entendu, lu. Like we had done this before and with every available sense, not just the return but the departure. The eternal dance. The bodiless song. That time will come when you return to Palmares finally. We will all be waiting. You know the way, the low hanging branch to the east, the whistle of the urutau. In my arms and out of them, like always.
Yours forever, in love and solidarity, free but not free,
Miles felt immediately sick upon finishing the letter. He had the strongest urge to throw up, to expel what was not yet there, but he heroically bypassed yet another lump. He had never felt more alone. In one moment he had been on some enlightening trail and abruptly, it ended, as if it had been sucked up through space, vaporized. He teared through the old sallow page and stuffed the bits of it into his mouth, piece by piece, becoming soggy and inky. Swallowed again. And for the first time in many weeks he slept soundlessly. That’s because his dreams were playing out in his head. A basketball in his hands now, not the letter, significantly larger and heavier than the average size. He took a few dribbles and shot it into a hoop that stood some feet away, but as he did so the rim became smaller and smaller. These irregularities quickly fixed themselves. The ball returned to a normal size, the rim round and proper. But every time he let go of the ball it felt as though he were pushing instead of shooting it. The ball is supposed to be an extension of your arm. THUMP. THUMP. That was the sound of the ball as it hit the same part of the rim each time like a rock and came back to him. His frustration grew and grew. Even the easy shots, 5-6 foot jumpers felt foreign. He looked down at his wrists which were mangled and marred, twisted like a thick rope full of black hairs. How does one shoot a ball with a broken wrist?
The next day, in waking reality, to Miles’s dismay the man who had been there since the beginning had seemed no less resolved. In the circle before work where he always read his letter, he simply looked down peacefully at the spot that had once occupied the sallow sheet of paper.
Miles hardly worked, listening in the dark of the truck for any change in the man. His hands moved at the same rhythm as they had always moved. Musical. But Miles knew nothing of music and couldn’t assign their rhythm a time signature. The man still spoke of freedom saying, “They can’t swallow my memory,” and Miles was at once shaken and torrid. “Doesn’t he know what I did? And if so, why doesn’t he talk at me anymore?” he thought. But what really made him frightened was the thought of, “If the paper did not give him strength, then from where does he get it? How does he face the interior anger of his own death?”
Suddenly, Miles cracked.
“I stole your letter.”
For a long time nothing was said in the darkness, just the ruffling and unwrapping of paper, the sliding of the cargo off the truck and into nothing. That familiar shear pumped into the canals.
“The one in your back pocket! The one you read everyday?” Miles didn’t understand the question.
The man made patting sounds with his hands, made a low hum like mm to indicate his surprise. Heard from another angle though, it indicated nonchalance.
“So it seems you did.”
Miles’s heart was pounding now, angry at this man who didn’t seem to care at all that he had taken such words right out of his back pocket. Words that Miles assumed were bound to the man, a part of him just as his hand were a part of him. This man who didn’t acknowledge Miles or his act of betrayal in any way!
“Why aren’t you angry with me? Those words were.. Well they were.. You know what I’m trying to say!”
“I don’t really, brother.”
Miles swayed back and forth in the darkness.
“I swallowed the paper. They are a part of me now. I stole your words, why aren’t you angry with me?!”
The man slammed his fist against the truck’s metal plates. Stood up and let out an enormous sigh.
“Do you know what I’m angry about, brother? I’m angry about the women and children here at my feet, dead. Dead not in any honorable way like a brother in the forest buried by his people after claiming the lives of two or three blue-eyed invaders. No! His return to the ground is one of honor. When the Earth’s layer is removed ever so slightly for his arrival, she does not grub him but allows him to enter deeply. What of this shit here? It’s not about death but how one arrived there. Homeless, forgotten, as defeated and chained as us, brother. They are piled on top of each other, animated by men as dead and buried away as they. What a false touching their bodies share! Do you remember the words? For how long will you remember them before they fade away? Who do you think that letter was addressed to? Did it have a name?”
He began again, shaking his head, “It was just the body. Just the body.”
Miles looked down at the bodies in the dark which his eyes had finally adjusted to, the now recognized faces of the forgotten, the pariahs, which for him had undergone a process of normalization and denial but which were radically affirmed in this moment of ultimate truth. He smelled death’s pas de deux, a dance only realized through two bodies: the one who smells of poisoned fish plucked from a dried up river, and the one who smells of hormones and minerals, nutrients surging through the sapwood of a strong adult tree. The face looking up at him dead but animated in their brief contact. The room in which his sister danced daily returning to him. A long wooden bar that traced the perimeter of the mirror. Four bodies in the room, each one looking at the other. A shadow towards the back, unreflected, where the outside air of yesterday creeps in, the disembodied voice, heavily accented: “You must move with more freedom!” His sister’s constraint, the masculine pulse of a veiny white hand dug into her tights, around her tightened waist, animating her, animating her. Their mother’s eyes somewhere. And later. Stealing the wind up ballerina box from her room as she slept, breaking it so she could twirl no more. Yes, freeing her.
“That letter was addressed to a name” the man suddenly resumed. “But that name wasn’t me. That’s why it was scrubbed out. Like them.” He pointed down in the darkness, his long black finger as clear as day.
“They got names, they got no names. They’re just here. Waiting to be rearranged.”
Miles had no words, not even the ones he had stolen. He had completely stopped moving, like the loss of power to an entire factory of men and machinery. Other men could be heard continuing the mass burying of the bodies. Somewhere far off or close by, the calmest and most tender of vibratos sounded, encompassing the air completely, eternally resounding.
“No, brother, I don’t blame you. I just hope that one day you will be free.”
Miles would soon transfer out of the zone, unable to bear not the singular face of the zone itself, but the many faces of the man who had been there since the beginning. The face of hope, the face of compassion, of resolve, and finally of freedom. And these faces frustrated him because he only caught glimpses of them, like a child who wakes up the next morning left only with the broken pieces of a mother’s story they fell asleep to, or the refrain of her lullaby. Voices in one’s head that won’t cease. They were all exhausting to him, that man who always took what he was not given. This angry man, with bits of paper in his digestive tract which he would never understand though they were submerged in him. And he would remember the words. On a calm day years from now, the thought gashed at Miles’ core: “What did the man mean by freedom?” It had never occurred to Miles to ask the man.
And of that man who had been there since the beginning? Well, as always, he works in the zone, but not for much longer…there and not there. In the mornings before beginning work, he looks down at the fresh mud and reads the letter in his head, word for word, for long before it was stolen, he had memorized it. But how can one even call it memorization? He wonders how the words, like the mud formed fresh and anew daily, solidifies and breaks apart the continuity of the days which at first appear endless but can be slashed through. The days which stand directly in front of him, but which, at any time, he could leap over with one great thrust of the hips, of the legs. The words that had always been there of course, in everyone, in everything. He lived with the words, just as had lived with his. The writing was just a way to formalize it. The body was just the body, and as he had said from the beginning, “won’t be much longer until I’m free.”
My writing owes endless thanks to the encouragement and words of Madeline Lane-McKinley, Johanna Isaacson, and Kenan Sharpe. And of course to the writers who I have had in my head for the last half-year: Eduardo Galeano, Cristina Peri Rossi, Ingeborg Bachmann, Waguih Ghalib, Alejandra Pizarnik, Magda Szabó, Juan Gelman, Juan Rulfo, as well as the many unwritten myths of the various indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa.