I push the sharp edges of the shovel into the scorched, dry dirt. The ground gives way and a stinking clump of earth slides out. I dig in the earth because I must tend to the plants, and I must tend to the plants because I work in the field in which the plants grow. Such is my job.
The plants grow in a field of heedless expanse, yet if I squint in any direction, I may make out, at the very edge of my field of vision, the tall walls, hovering like deepening storm clouds, and the blocky silhouettes of the guard towers jutting into the air.
I drop the clump of earth from my shovel onto the base of the plant I am tending, filling a small hole made by an animal—a rodent, I assume, as I have seen many rodents about this field since I began my labors within it.
Sometimes it seems to me as though I see only rodents.
* * *
Perhaps I have made it seem as if I labored in the field alone.
This is not the case.
Not at all.
In fact, I am tethered to another man, Kretch, who digs the scorched dry earth in the same manner as I.
I have heard that in days past, well before I began to labor in this field, the tethers were made of synthetic material, and were removed in certain instances, such as for sleep, or for bathing, or for a periodic scrubbing of the tether itself.
Now, though, it is different.
Now, we are always tethered.
The thick cord of braided flesh and veins, sutured to my side, connects me most vitally to Kretch. Though the installation was difficult, and caused much discomfort for a protracted time, that is all in the past. I have since come to love my tether, just as the overseers indicated that I would. For it is not made of just any flesh, but of my own flesh.
At night, I feel, with great pleasure, the slow pulsing of blood as it courses first through my own body; then, through the length of the tether; then, through Kretch’s body; then, through the tether once again; and then, finally, back into my own person, making my blood indistinguishable from Kretch’s blood.
The blood is beautiful because it is shared blood.
Kretch’s flesh is beautiful because it has become, in a certain way, my flesh.
Upon occasion, I stroke the tether, feeling its gnarled surface: the many abrasions indenting its surface, the patches that have become discolored from exposure to the sun, the rough calluses formed by dragging it upon the dirt and stones day-in and day-out.
* * *
In the rest-shack one night, I am passing the time before sleep by stroking the tether, quite softly and delicately. From his cot, Kretch looks at me sourly.
“I’d thank you to not play with the tether, as I can feel such things as well and do not wish to feel them at this time.”
“But Kretch,” I say, “I stroke the tether for the tether truly is glorious. It is of both of our persons, and thus we must treat it in a tender way.”
Kretch grunts, sits silent for a moment, before finally saying, “I do not see how an item such as that may be as you say.”
“The tether has brought us together, without which we might never have been so,” I counter, continuing to run my fingers along its dry and hardened flesh, “The tether has made us a family. More than a family, if such a thing be possible.”
Kretch grunts again, but does not answer this time, merely rolls over on his cot to face the wall opposite me. I feel the tether pull toward him, tugging against my side.
I do not think that Kretch agrees with me about the tether.
But then again, we do not agree on much.
* * *
At times, during the day, the overseers give us a brief respite from our labors in the field. During such times we sit beside the road, in a small circle of stones worn down from the rests of many another laborer in the field. The sun hangs over our place of respite, beating into us with a pure ferocity of heat.
I have heard reports that elsewhere in the field there are trees, and that the laborers in those sectors of the field may lean against such trees as there are, and enjoy their shade.
Yet this seems most unlikely to me, for why would such a thing be kept within the field where the plants grow, taking up precious space? The other laborers have no answer to this.
At the time of the respite many of us chew upon the resin found on the underside of the leaves of the plants. The chewing of the resin produces a most salutary affect throughout the body, as well as in the mind, allowing the chewer to forget for some time both his fatigue and the field.
The chewing of the resin is strictly not allowed, the overseers preferring the resin to be gathered into the truck with the other parts of the plant and taken to the processing structure. They have sharp eyes, the overseers, and often catch us when we chew the resin, and then communicate to us that we must once again begin laboring.
Though Kretch and I wish to avoid any interruption of our respite, we have agreed on the necessity of chewing the resin.
* * *
Kretch becomes greatly annoyed when the overseers interrupt our respite. Upon these occasions, he will curse, and say that though he hates the overseers, he believes that we ourselves are at fault. I never know quite what he means, and must ask for clarification.
He will invariably look most irritated when I ask this question, and say, “Sherman, you have asked for clarification many times before. I know not how to better express my thoughts on the matter. Yet I will tell you, as I have told you in the past: everything that happens to us within this field, but especially the interruption of our respite, is a just punishment for what we ourselves, our people, have done. We have brought this upon ourselves.”
I will look about the field, observing the other tethered pairs either laboring or enjoying their respite. “But, Kretch, why would we punish ourselves?”
Kretch will then only shrug, and resume digging into the earth with his shovel, and say, “Who else would?”
Like many of the things Kretch says, this is said simply and quietly, yet firmly, as if it were a matter of incontrovertible fact.
And I will stare out over the field. I do not agree with him, but then nor do I disagree with him, having little or no evidence to sway my thoughts to either side. The argument—like many of the arguments made by Kretch—has a certain vicious logic to it, from which I find escape impossible.
* * *
The overseers watch us nearly constantly as we labor upon the field, their bodies hidden beneath long black cloaks, their faces obscured by darkly tinted, opaque masks. At the bottom of the masks a tube erupts that leads beneath the cloak.
“It is strange that they cannot breathe the air that we can breathe,” I say, thinking through the matter.
“As like as not these plants emit some poison, from which they hope to protect themselves,” Kretch responds, as though he has considered this very problem long ago, the answer now trivial and commonsensical.
“But,” I say, “If your theory is correct, we ourselves would remain continually exposed to such poison, more so because we are the ones who gather the plants.”
“Yes, Sherman,” Kretch responds with a sigh, “That would then seem to follow.”
“I don’t feel that I am poisoned,” I say, “Do you, Kretch?”
Kretch speaks slowly, and deliberately, his face contorting tortuously, as though some essential discomfort has burrowed deep within him.
“No. I do not. But it is perhaps yet too early to tell.”
* * *
We are often injected with certain unknown substances, for unknown reasons.
The injections occur always in the rest shack, always late at night, yet irregularly and without warning. Early on in our labors in the field, Kretch and I made attempts to establish the schedule of these injections, what Kretch called “a scientific effort.”
No pattern could be determined, yet Kretch has devised a theory as to why this might be so.
“The overseers inject us in such an irregular manner so that we may not know when they will occur,” says Kretch, “This increases our fear of the injections, so we may not predict and thus normalize this event within our lives.”
This theory is one that I have not considered before, and strikes me as an insight of no ordinary nature. It is clear to me that Kretch was a man of some importance outside of the field, although in what capacity I could not begin to say.
One night, after we have lay down in our cots in the rest shack but before we have begun to sleep, I ask Kretch what he did before being brought to the field.
“It does not matter,” he says.
“Do you not remember being outside the field?” I ask, “For such is my own circumstance.”
“No,” he says, and pulls from a pouch a small piece of resin that he then begins to chew upon, “I do remember. It simply does not matter, as I’ve come to believe that all outside and prior to the field mightn’t truly have happened.”
“How might this be so?” I ask. “How could you have memories not your own?”
“I believe it has to do with the injections,” Kretch says, “Yet I cannot say for certain. As like as not they have a purpose more terrible than I may ascertain.”
Nothing more is said, as Kretch soon falls into a resin-trance, staring at the ceiling and blinking in a slow, rhythmic manner, a thin trickle of saliva spilling out the corner of his mouth.
The overseers who perform the injection arrive that very night, and I am awoken by two pairs of firm hands gripping each of my shoulders as a third figure lifts my tattered shirt and swabs the side of my body opposite the tether. This latter figure then produces a small hypodermic needle that is thrust into my side. The pain is sharp, but quick. I look beside me and see three other figures administering an identical injection to Kretch.
Nothing about this particular injection differs from the previous injections.
* * *
One day, as we labor in the fields, an overseer approaches us. In the silent way of the overseers, who speak without voice, with a clarity and precision unknown to mere utterance, it communicates to us that we are to defer our present labors and cross the field, and there to make our way to the rear of the Processing Structure.
The overseer watches us as we carefully set down our shovels and walk along the thin path that cuts through the field, where the plants have by this time of the season grown far above our heads.
As he is the stronger of us, Kretch carries the bulk of the tether in his arms, much of it wrapped firmly about his body. We pass other pairs of tethered laborers, the dust clinging to their sweating bodies as they shovel at the earth. The sun shines dully, yet powerfully and tenaciously, through the filthy smog of the sky, casting a leaden shadow across all, bleaching out the colors of the field.
In anticipation of finally seeing the Processing Structure, my heart rate increases, and I can feel the blood flow faster through the tether. My excitement is further elevated to think that now Kretch himself shall feel the increased flow of blood, and will soon become as excited as I, causing the blood to flow faster, and my own excitement to increase all the more.
Kretch looks at me strangely. “What is the matter, Sherman?”
“I am anxious to see the Processing Structure,” I reply.
Kretch says nothing for a moment, then, “I would not feel too glad about this, for I’ve not known the overseers ever to do us favors. More likely than not we shall regret this task as much as all the rest.”
“But, Kretch,” I say, “The Processing Structure. Finally, we shall see it up close. How could we regret such a thing?”
“Time shall tell which of us is the more correct,” he says.
Then we pass a pair of overseers, who communicate to us that we must be silent.
It takes us the rest of the morning to reach the Processing Structure. I cannot contain my joy as I see it looming over us, a giant block with walls smooth as glass and pitch black, like obsidian, as Kretch says, and emanating short bursts of cold, frigid air, cutting through the heat of the field and chilling my body to its deepest recesses.
The very darkness of the edifice skews the light, bringing some into itself in a most violent and gluttonous and total manner, and even our shadows are pulled against and into the wall of the Processing Structure, though we stand much too far away for this to be likely. Yet elsewhere, shafts of light are repelled, with certain spaces upon the structure harboring a sickeningly reflective brilliance. Such play of light and shadow upon the walls of the structure make its contours difficult to determine. I am left only with the sense of immensity, a grandeur not native to our own cognition.
Neither Kretch nor myself care to touch the structure.
The very top of the Processing Structure is made of clear glass, and in it we can see figures moving about. Presumably these are overseers, though the top level is so high that we can make out no certain detail from the ground below.
As we walk along the path that encircles the Processing Structure, making our way to the rear, I begin to notice a peculiar stench overtaking me at once, the putrid sickly sweet smell of a carcass.
“Kretch,” I say, “I smell something rotted.”
He looks at me, annoyed, “I believe it is your own flesh that is rotted. That is what you smell.”
Soon, though, the stench becomes dense, suffocating, and Kretch says, “I smell it now, too.”
It becomes apparent that the stench originates on the far side of the Processing Structure. We turn the corner of the building, and immediately see a large deep ditch carved into the earth, and in it several rounded piles of bodies, tethered in pairs like ourselves, each pair entangled with several other pairs. The tethers have become crossed and knotted around each other so that no distinct pair may be identified.
They have begun to rot, and vermin and insects move about them with impunity.
Kretch walks closer, and I follow him. The bodies have been split precisely down the middle, from the very top of the head to the crotch, and pulled apart much like one would do to a cooked crab. However there are no organs within these bodies, and only tiny specks of blood dappling the meat inside the empty chest cavities.
“These are not bodies,” Kretch mutters, “These are mere husks.”
“Perhaps we have misunderstood the overseers. Perhaps we have gone to the wrong place,” I say, looking about and seeing no one, neither tethered laborer nor overseer, in our area.
“Fool,” Kretch says violently yet quietly, shaking his head, “Do you not realize that they have wanted us to see this. Don’t you see that we shall someday be upon this pile in much the same condition.”
I say nothing, and we walk back along the path, again around the Processing Structure and then back through the field where the plants have grown tall, beginning to droop to the side. Here and there upon them a small flower has budded. Soon, I think, it will be time for the harvesting, and then there will be no respite, or time spent in the rest shack.
* * *
That night, we lay in our cots. Kretch chews upon a piece of resin, silent and brooding.
“How might you suppose, Kretch,” I venture cautiously, “that the husks, as you call them, became so free of blood?”
“What are you talking about?” Kretch says. He looks at me as if he disbelieves that I have spoken.
“I said,” I repeat, “How might you suppose…”
But I am unable to finish, as Kretch’s anger flares suddenly, and most surprisingly. He takes me by my face, and digs his fingers into my eyes, my nose, and my mouth, pushing my tongue down my throat with his thumb. I gag upon my tongue and feel the pressure upon my eyes as they begin to squeeze from their sockets. He then lifts me from my cot by my face and drags me upon the floor, and though it is a nearly perfect darkness inside the hut, I can tell that he has dragged me to the window. There, he slams the right side of my head repeatedly against the window ledge, speaking a word after each impact of my ear upon the hard wood.
“Will…you…be…quiet…now?” he says, “Will…you?”
At the end of his two short sentences, my ear and face are sticky with blood. Kretch releases me and I fall to the floor, and he then begins to walk back to his cot. But he cannot get to his cot because our tether stops him, pulling taut when he is yet several feet from his destination. He returns and kicks me across the floor toward the cot until he can reach it, and lies down upon the thin mattress.
I lay huddled and bleeding at the foot of his cot, and begin to sob uncontrollably. I do not know why I do this, only that a sadness beyond reckoning crashes in waves across my mind, and my body.
After an indeterminable amount of time, I feel a touch upon my shoulder, and Kretch is beside me, wrapping his arms about my person, his naked chest pressing against my own.
“There there, Sherman, there there,” he says softly, patting and rubbing my own bare chest, “It will be all right. Everything will soon be all right.”
He holds me there until the first shoots of light enter our rest shack, our tether wrapped loosely round the both of us.
* * *
Kretch disappeared during the night.
I awoke because I felt the blood cease to flow through the tether as quickly as it ought, and knew that he was gone, and thus awaited my own passing.
But such did not happen.
An overseer soon came, rolling a large cylindrical machine, into which he inserted the loose end of my tether. I soon felt the circulation of the blood begin anew, and soon lost consciousness.
When I awoke I found that I had been re-tethered. My new partner seems incapable of speech, at least speech such as I can understand. I do not know if it is language, and am prone to believe that it is not. This is just as well, as we have lately become much too busy for idle chatter, having been removed from the field and taken to labor at the rear of the Processing Structure.
My new partner and I collect the husks as they fall from the chute that emerges from the Processing Structure and place them inside a wooden cart. We then wheel the cart to the ditch in the rear where we remove the husks from the cart and arrange them inside.
From these new labors I have learned that a husk—much like a tether—may be a truly beautiful thing that brings men together.