Read More: A brief interview with Rachel Greenberg
Centuries ago a wall came down and trapped us forever in this spot of earth. We call it one last victory for the English that we can claim a piece of France as our own. If we could, we would only use this ground for sleeping. Yet here we are. Stuck and wide awake. No matter how hard we worked in life for our fair share of peace, we’ve never properly had it.
We still remember our last living days: our tents in the foggy forest where we awaited the next battle. Everywhere the soil was stamped with blood. During sleepless nights, the grit worked its way between our teeth and under our nails. During the day, we stomached watery servings of pottage and beans, stretched thin and then stretched again, sopped up with ash-blackened bread. We called it a miracle when we discovered a spry red deer wandering the bogs so late in the cold season. It took three precious arrow to kill it. We divided the lean-muscled carcass into narrow strips, just three for each of us. It would be the last meat we would ever eat.
At all times the chance of attack hung in the air like the smell of lightning before a storm.
My group of ten was assigned to dig an undermine beneath the wall of the French compound. Over the course of days, the wall grew unfounded over our heads. Yet still we worked away, for that was the order. Soon the ground distended upon us, only a carpet of earth holding up the wall. We punctuated our picking with the rhythms of our prayers, or maybe it is better to say we punctuated our prayers with the slowness of our picking, until eventually we took only thimbles-full of soil and pinheads of rock away from the tunnel ceiling, encouraging the collapse as nearly as we could without yet inciting it. But by then the damage was done.
One among us made one last dent and our lungs filled with black earth.
The man to my left blames the French. I have told him that if they had wanted us dead they had better ways. Like pouring boiling oil down the tunnel. That was how they did things. No, this was simply an effect of physics. We’ve nothing to blame but the hand of God that hovers in the air.
With the torque of my spine, my right arm rests on the pile of fallen stones, while my left arm and right leg tangle with the body of the French-hating man. Beneath the stones, my left foot perches in the broken jaw of another man. I have forgotten his name, all of their names really, but I remember that this one was Welsh and I could never understand him. But in life he was generous in the way of a man who loves to be liked. Now with his teeth stuck between my toes I understand him even less than before. In the middle of the fallen wall, the stones sandwich our drummer boy, his knees threaded through my ribs and his fingers scraping my chin. Just three weeks before the collapse, he saw his father killed by an arrow, gored from sternum to tail bone. Below us and above us and beside us there are six others, but they think so softly these days that I hardly ever hear them and have forgotten their voices and faces.
I have an easy accord with most of the ten. But I don’t like the lefthand man. We’ve lain together for hundreds of years with our noses pressed together. Once he had hairy moles all over his face and neck and his skin had the the splotchiness of feeble leather. Watching its decay was like discovering an old house cloth ripped apart by moths.
In the early days we ten often argued often over what to do and who to blame. Today, we’ve forgiven our king who led us here with his appetite for extra crowns and the French king who couldn’t relent his titles and deeds. We’ve forgiven our countrymen who never dug us out and we’ve forgiven the French soldiers with their slippery insults. We’ve forgiven the worms that peeled us apart, the dogs that pawed at our ground, the crumpled wall that failed to mark our place in this world against the corrosion of time. And, too, the family whose heavy stone farm house stood on our heads for a century and a half, and the industrial farmers who today mulch over us to cover the fields with lavender. We’ve even forgiven the lavender for its florid springtime smell. And we’ve forgiven each other, both for the decades of chatter and the decades of silence.
I should say: I at least have forgiven all except for this horrible lefthand man who is one of those sort who always needs someone to blame. In his stagnant hatred of the French, he’s lost all touch with reality. The hundreds of passing years have meant nothing to him. He thinks that his wife must still be thinking of him at home, that the smell of lavender comes from weeping English maidens in black kerchiefs who have left flowers on the battlefield to mourn us.
When I want to do some thinking, I must keep it very quiet, even better if I can keep it to short, simple thoughts. Otherwise he’ll hear me and get angry and push his brow into my forehead to buck a challenge. I think that we nine might have achieved that perfect sleep that every good man expects if it weren’t for the lefthand man.
Some nights when none of us are moved to think or remember, our pocket of space becomes like silence. In it, we drift like dust motes in still water. Gradually I can become I and not we, my mind maybe in my head or my toes, I don’t know anymore. Some tuft of memory wafts by, perhaps a memory of mine or someone else’s, it’s hard to say. On quiet days, I can’t resist latching onto them, luxuriating in them a little bit, dangerous a habit as it may be. Here is this one: the smells of brittle flour dust spooned out on the tabletop, of earthy yeast, and sweet swelling dough resting in a bowl under a damp cloth in the sun. Smells stay with you better than the rest. I wonder if I remember that smell from my mother’s, wife’s, sister’s, lover’s kitchen. I can imagine the face of a woman I might have loved, a face that might have caught my attention across a market square, might have kept me up at night sweating to imagine the nuance of its expressions. Sometimes I create her face with a rounded forehead, fair skin, far-placed eyes like a royal. Other days, she is ruddy from the sun, a swarm of freckles across the bridge of her nose, cracked brown lips, a space between the teeth that whistles when she sighs. What a dangerous game this becomes.
Every day the others dream less and less. Sometimes still our drummer boy murmurs aloud his gauzy fears over who his mother mourned after more, him or his father, when word reached her.
At the surface, the harvest season is coming on and everyday the workers overhead kneel to gather lavender. Some of them sing in a French that we know to be French but can’t understand. It makes the lefthand man curse and rattle his skull, which the flower pickers must be able to feel on the surface for it always sends them away from our plot. Whatever they imagine they’re feeling in the ground, tremors of the plates or the vibrations of the farm equipment or the movements of underground water, it gives me some satisfaction to know that they can feel our haunting, even if only a bit.
Today is a quiet day; the flower pickers have gone for the evening. As I stretch my free leg, I’m surprised to find no resistance below me. A new pocket of air, I think, until I stretch my leg as straight as it will go and feel the bones swinging, loose and untethered. I recoil and pull my leg back up and find that I can nearly lift my knee to my pelvis. On my left side, my toes are still stiff between the Welshman’s teeth. I ask him where his backside has gone.
I feel I’m sinking, he mumbles. My fingers found water. Water running fast as a river.
Water running fast as a river. We crack our calcified necks hoping to see, but we can’t make anything out in the solid black below. Even those six who I haven’t heard in decades, even they push at each other to get a better view, while the mad lefthand man panics at the clamor of our voices, clenching his fingers against me. […]
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Rachel Greenberg is a writer from Baltimore, currently living in San Diego. Her fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Fiction International, and Tethered By Letters.
Read More: A brief interview with Rachel Greenberg