Part I: If I become an amputee
I’ve long thought that part of being enslaved is the absence of the big picture—not knowing where you and your labor fall within the grand scheme of your location, your province or region.
Travis and I don’t know the name of the cemetery where we work. We don’t even know if it has a name. We don’t know why Dean Renley, one of the two people we’re enslaved under, carries “Dean” as a prefix. We haven’t heard of any nearby universities; we haven’t seen him teach. Travis once suggested that “Dean” is the man’s first name and “Renley” is his last, and that we’re merely calling him by his full, formal name. But we don’t call his wife, Persia, by her full name.
You could shout into our vat of information and it would echo.
Today, I tread, step by step, to the grave that I’ve been assigned to excavate. We have theories about where the mines are located, and those theories are marked with indigo flags, but it’s understood that they could be anywhere. I scrupulously avoid the flags, giving them at least twenty paces of distance. The field smells like fennel. Travis isn’t working at the moment, so I have no one to search for by turning my head and pretending to catch my breath. When Travis is working, and I’m able to spot him—negotiating his way around flags, taking deliberate steps through the yellowing weeds—I feel a pang of connectedness and deep familiarity that makes me ache. There is my friend. There is my other person; the person who would immediately mind if one of my limbs was obliterated.
I keep an image of Travis and me tucked away in my mind’s eye, the way a girl would keep a photograph in a locket. In the image, my leg has been neatly amputated, after being savagely split apart and incinerated by an explosion. I am generous in this photo and make it only one of my legs. (I’m also generous in that my face, the crescent of my smile, is untouched.) My hair falls past my shoulders in waves, backlit by the late afternoon sun. I’m sitting in a wheelchair, procured from who knows where, and Travis has a hand on my shoulder. We are free. We are a real couple, with none of the other workers present. A team of two.
I lie to myself in this mental locket image. For something of this nature to actually happen, Travis, too, would need to be handicapped by an explosion.
Part II: If I lose my arms
The yellowing field smells of fennel. The coffins, once cracked open, smell of mummies and velvet grown rank with mildew. But Travis’s whole person smells, to me, like peach ice cream.
That was our first date, even though nothing in this place could righteously approximate a first date. We made peach ice cream on a patch of grass behind the outhouse. We were able to partially obscure ourselves—“mostly obscure ourselves,” Travis had assured—by positioning our bodies cattycorner to a generator, in the shadow of a chain-link fence.
Travis had planned it. He must have risked his life to abscond with a barrel and hand crank. Not to mention the cream.
“Where did you get all this?” I’d asked, gaping.
Travis didn’t tell me. He was mindful of our time. He wanted to make a moment of this meeting between us. A good memory that we could refer back to. Something lighthearted: The whiteness of my linen blouse, almost painfully bright in the sun; the lacey shadows of the fence contouring my cheeks, my forehead. The distinct scent of peaches. The way we wouldn’t come within six paces of each other, both of us observing some unspoken rule. I stood with my boots planted in the grass, eyes lowered, grinning, without much to say. Periodically, I’d watch the muscular movement above Travis’s elbow as he churned the hand crank; the way the work made ocean waves of his skin. He had so much force in him. He ground through the ice in a matter of minutes.
I took a turn with the hand crank, too. The cream and peaches had begun as something variegated and lumped, but transmuted into a medium that was homogenous and pastel-hued. My arms were spasming lightly when I finally spooned the ice cream into cups.
It tasted like something we shouldn’t have been allowed to have. It was too good. Sitting in the grass, six paces from Travis, watching the hem of my skirt lift from the crisscross of my bootstrings and then settle again, I felt unburdened to a degree that I suspected was illicit. A sparrow, the color of twigs, hopped around the outhouse’s entrance. From the way it moved, the speed, you got the sense that it was lighter than a cotton ball. That was how my whole being felt. Travis set his cup to the side and sat in silence. He’d succeeded. It was a moment.
After our date, I was sure retribution was coming. I was sure we’d been spotted, and that our rendezvous was forbidden. This was not written down anywhere, of course. There was no list of statutes nailed to the wall outside our sleeping quarters. We were never made to memorize a set of rules. But we got whiffs of rules, like indigo flags. Places we were not supposed to tread.
The morning that followed the ice cream, the workers assembled in a line adjacent to the cemetery. We were each, consecutively, given our assignments: which graves we were to excavate and at what time. Dean Renley and Persia didn’t like too many of us on the field at once, lest a mine go off and they lose multiple workers. (Lose workers to death, or lose them to physical handicap, in which case they’d be permitted to escort themselves off the premises, to “freedom.”)
When Persia, in a plume of floral cologne, approached me, I was sure she’d draw a weapon from underneath her wrap. I felt like I was running a fever. My knees had a tremor to them, threatening to send me careening into the dirt. I thought she’d shoot me in the gut, right there, next to Travis. Or shoot Travis first.
But this didn’t happen. Travis and I received our assignments. Persia’s cologne progressed to the next worker in line, and while Dean Renley’s attention, monument-like, did periodically rest on Travis and me, it didn’t linger there. So, we continued to walk forward.
Part III: If my skull is seared
“Let’s step on one on purpose,” Travis proposes.
“No,” I answer, with a tone of finality.
“Maybe I can step on one, we’ll conceal you somewhere else, and then we’ll pretend that you got hit too.”
I look at him beseechingly.
“You can smear my blood on your skin and all over your clothes,” he says. “They may not know the difference.”
I then say something to him that I’d once heard our elderly couple—the only two workers who are married—say to each other. An imitation, like a child parroting an adult’s words:
“Can you hear yourself right now?”
Travis relaxes the bag of loot that he was unloading. He scoots an inch closer to me. Puts his palm on the top of my head, as if in baptism.
“A sacrifice will have to be made.” He looks at the dirt floor, parting his lips, mouth breathing. “I’m not saying that I’m unafraid of how badly it’ll hurt. But I’m willing to do it.”
We circle each other and negotiate for hours. I feel dumbfounded by his reasoning. I become angry, and then I become mean. But Travis simply returns my objections, delivering them back into my hands. I try to substitute my position for his in our imagined scenario—making myself the sacrifice. But he protests and steers me out of it. I stack up tokens of doubt on his plan, like beads on an abacus: There won’t be enough blood. Dean Renley will kick me and see my reaction; he’ll know I’m not injured. If we get this wrong, I’ll never see you again. You could die. You’re taking great liberties in overlooking this very plausible outcome. You could injure yourself so precisely, you won’t die but wish that you had. You might be alive, but not even know I’m present. And if you are hurt, and Dean Renley and Persia don’t believe that I’m handicapped too, I won’t be there with you—to help rehabilitate you, or to be with you in your final moments. This is stupid. You are stupid. But these tokens don’t appear to weigh on Travis.
We argue in whispers under the shade of the unloading dock, amongst piles of vintage wedding rings and rusting pocket watches. Tooth fillings encased in real, human teeth. We argue behind the outhouse, arms akimbo. We argue in hushed tones by candlelight, me under blankets and Travis crouching at my bedside, with a thumb resting on the corner of my lips.
We knew someone who’d stepped on a landmine and been emancipated. His name was Ely; he was in his 50s at the time. All the workers had lauded him. He’d lost a leg, but, according to rumor, had crossed paths with a medic upon being discharged from the cemetery. The medic had prevented him from bleeding out, stitching him up and sealing his open flesh. The rumor holds that Ely gradually regained his health. He built a new life for himself, a life of compensated labor, and then prospered modestly.
But this can only be folklore. How could anyone know what happened to Ely? No worker has entered or exited the cemetery premises since he left.
Nonetheless, Travis cites this anecdote as a counter to my doubts.
Remember? Ely did it. Ely managed.
I do remember. I remember the multitude of arms and shoulders that hoisted Ely’s pitilessly red, glistening body into the air. How his blood got on everyone’s blouses, aprons, hands, neckties. How his leg was mere pulp. And how, as the workers were rushing him to the cemetery’s exit, where they’d have no choice but to abandon him, one worker with her hair in a bun kept asking, “Is there anything else you need from your bedside? Did you have any other belongings?”
Ely kept croaking, “The faucet. There was a faucet. My faucet.”
“My faucet,” he answered, with eyes angled up at the sky.
Workers exchanged glances, then rushed on.
Part IV: If it cracks my pelvic bone
I’ve long wondered whether a life enslaved is really so inferior to a life in which I’m technically free but irreparably injured. I have posed this question to Travis. What will we be able to do, once free, that we can’t potentially accomplish here, on the cemetery premises? We were able to make the ice cream. There are books available, people to converse with. It certainly seems that when one minds the flags, one has a reasonable guarantee of not setting off a landmine.
“We can’t own property,” Travis says. “We can’t have a home of our own. Outside these fences we’d be able to choose the labor we wish to engage in, earn wages in exchange for that labor, and trade those wages for goods.”
I meet his eyes.
“If your legs don’t work, if you’re missing an arm or both your arms, if your head is muddled…”
“I’ll use the abilities I do have,” he insists. His countenance suddenly seems childlike—more like that of a young boy, jousting with old-fashioned parents. “Also, there’s only a chance we’ll be permanently injured. It may happen, and it may not. But if we stay here, we’ll be enslaved forever. The one option offers hope; the other offers none.”
There is something he doesn’t mention when we discuss the benefits of freedom. Something we’ve never talked about explicitly. The physical aspects of our partnership—the expected seamlessness between him and me. We’ve kissed, but we haven’t done anything further. Pregnancy is not tolerated here. This, like most other rules, is something that we’ve deduced. An acrimonious pill that all the workers swallowed down and never again considered. There was once a worker who became pregnant. She was in her late teens; her name was Kindred. She vomited in private, but eventually began showing around the waist in a way that was unmistakable. A medical undertaker entered the cemetery at night with a striped umbrella and leather gloves. We heard sounds that, in theory, could have been childbirth, but by sunrise it was patently clear that neither the baby nor Kindred was alive.
I wonder how badly Travis wants me. I wonder how much desire, if any, is hidden under the surface. The portion of the iceberg beneath the water. How cool is he, inside? How coolly could he endure a life of not having my body, even once? Does he shake with impulses when we’re close? Am I missing it?
I keep an image in my mind of my own person. So unlike a picture in a locket. In the image, I’ve grown fatter, and I’m lain out on bedsheets atop a mattress. My face is dewy with sweat. Travis and I are free, and we’ve moved into a home of our own. I’m alone on the mattress, with a window casting light on my body. The window is my reminder of the outside world and everything I can’t partake in. A landmine has cracked my pelvis into fragments. I live, but my excrement is now fed into a bag. I live, but Travis can’t touch me, can’t interact with me physically, in the way he’d always imagined he would once we arrived at this point. He’s gone, in this image. Out somewhere. He spends a lot of time with other women.
Part V: If you and I are separated
On a Thursday, a few hours after lunch, I embark on my excavation assignment for the day. I take careful steps with my boots, wending my way across the field. The flags are in a frenzy; there’s a moderate wind terrorizing them. I carry a burlap bag for the loot. When I’m about thirty paces from the targeted grave, I sink my left foot into a divot. Immediately, I hear a snap. I cry out, moaning, and sink to the ground. My hands shoot to my ankle as I smile, wryly, in pain.
I hear Travis calling my name from a far-off distance. He must have seen me go down.
He calls again.
“I’m fine,” I call back. The sharpness of the pain is making it hard to breathe. I feel as though an elephant’s foot were on my abdomen, blood gushing through the chambers of my heart.
“Where are you?” comes his voice.
From where I collapsed, my body is obscured by high weeds. I can’t see him and I’m sure he can’t see me.
“Over here,” I call. “I’m fine. I think I just twisted my ankle.”
But there is no way I just twisted my ankle. Already, I can feel the joint ballooning, tightening in my boot—all the alarm systems in my body going off, the blood cells racing toward it. Emergency.
I hear Travis’s footfalls, even over the wind.
“Travis, slow down. Don’t rush.”
My mind is doing the calculations: If I can’t walk, I can’t excavate. If I can’t excavate, I can’t stay. I make an infinitesimal attempt to move my ankle and am met with blaring agony. I squeeze my eyes tight and bite the skin on my kneecap. But Travis has to stay. Travis has to stay unless something terrible happens.
When he finds me, I watch the awareness arriving on his face. The understanding draining it, top to bottom. He crouches. We unlace my bootstrings, and he slowly jiggers my heel out of the boot’s shaft as a voice escapes from my throat, unbidden.
He holds my ankle in his hands. The skin is prickled with a deep, hematic fuchsia. It no longer bears its indentations; you can’t surmise where one bone meets another. Travis wears the expression of someone who’s come upon a severely wounded animal, its ribcage moving weakly, its eyes already glassy. Its mouth dry from hanging open. The sorrow is heavy between his eyebrows. There’s nothing that can be done.
“This changes things,” I say, because he’s not saying it.
As the weeds rustle around us, I become aware that, in this miniature clearing—mostly created by my fall—we are perhaps the most alone that we have ever been. This is the most private space we’ve ever occupied together, these walls of yellowing weeds. It’s the closest we will ever come to a home of our own. An outward stamp, confirming our partnership, our togetherness. A real, or at least seemingly real, guarantee of something.
Travis’s eyes are ticking—minute movements. He’s still looking at my ankle, but he’s not truly looking at my ankle. He’s looking at the future. All the potential eventualities, the if and then scenarios. The paths that lead to sure destruction, and the paths that may be livable. Wondering whether he should open his mouth and argue with me, or spring up, right now, and run.