by Joe Fletcher
Wagner wakes me by nudging my thigh with his shovel. Slowly, my eyes fill up with the world. A killdeer flaps upwind through a dry sky. The tiger lilies glow orange beside the shed. I remember last night. I heard the hose gurgling from its slit. I heard them hauling the warehouse away in pieces. Now there is a concrete slab strewn with crumbled plaster and rust-flaked trusses. I imagine the new site for the warehouse miles away, between two yellow hills. I hear a distant buzzing.
Wagner got careless with his shovel yesterday. He was tired and it was dusk. He sliced the hose. Now I watch Wagner rinsing his face with the gray water dribbling from the slit. I have kicked my sleeping tarp from me and I prop myself on both elbows. Two robins scuffle noisily over something they’ve pried from the rubble.
We should turn the water off, but who knows where the spigot is? Once I followed the hose for a long way as it wove into the woods. At one point it coiled up the trunk of a maple, much like wisteria would, and continued among the crowns of adjacent trees. I followed beneath it, keeping one finger pointing at it in case I had to look down to leap a stream or descend a ravine. Finally, disguised among some hanging vines, it dropped from the branches and I could track it again, which was reassuring but only for several yards. Then the hose was buried in the forest floor. I sat in that place for a while listening, thinking what to do. I heard termites chewing the inside of a tree. I heard the blood scraping the inside of my veins, the water scraping the inside of the hose. I got no help. It was no trouble finding my way back to camp—I followed the hose, which glimmered silverly at night. I got back when it was hot and midday. Wagner emerged from the warehouse, furious. That was years ago, when he still had all his fingers.
Now Wagner is impatient and sighs loudly as I fasten my buckles and straps. His impatience makes me delay. His mistake with the hose has given me some power. “The goddamn hose,” I mutter as I devour my raisin muffin, standing up and looking somewhere beyond him. I notice his impatience turn to frustration and embarrassment.
Today we first have to remove the mound of stones that was once the kiln chimney behind the warehouse. The stones must be loaded one by one into the bed of a truck. I would rather be digging, but work is work. The stones press densely against my chest when I heft them. They are still cool and damp. Wagner is wearing his leather vest. The truck is idling with both doors open. Western music emits from the stereo. Wagner is getting older and taking more breaks. After twenty minutes he climbs into the cab of the truck to use the cigarette lighter. He lies across the bench seat and all I can see are his legs dangling from the passenger side and blue smoke curling from the driver’s side.
What is it like to be Wagner? I close my eyes. I imagine standing, close behind him, close enough to smell the oil of his dark hair flecked with gray. I imagine placing my hands on the sides of his head, lifting it from his body, and pulling it over my own head like a ski mask. I feel like a blue-black egg. I see the ocean smashing a fishing pier. I smell cinnamon. I see a finch eating thistle from a child’s hand. Wagner’s thoughts are like eels slithering through my head. They are loud and hot, but do not differ from my own in the sense that when I focus attention on them, they disperse.
Noon. The mound is nearly transferred to the truck. A layer of sweat separates us from the sun. I drink too fast from a thermos of coffee. It scorches my throat. Some chickweed pushes through the cracks in the slab. The helicopter is high above us, hovering. Too high to cast a shadow. I feel myself in the crosshairs of a distant scope. Wagner just nods as he works, chews his gum. The truck idles.
Underneath the final stones we discover the skeleton of a boy or small man. It is face-up, intact, despite what must have been the massive crush of stone. Antlers protrude from the skull. Knotted in their branches is an opal on a silver chain. While we are bent over in silent inspection I hear the doors slam and the truck accelerate off behind us.
Once Wagner woke me in the middle of the night. He was younger and had more hair. He looked like he had been concentrating for hours, as if a second face were about to sprout from his face. “I want you to shoot me,” he whispered, pressing a cool pistol to my open palm. (I sleep on my back with my arms uncovered, outstretched, hands open.) Wagner knew I was left-handed and placed the pistol there. I had seen this pistol once before, also at night, when I awoke to the sound of Wagner firing at a lunar eclipse. Now I sat up with the pistol in my hand. Wagner sat opposite me, bare-chested. He pointed to his sternum. I fired instantly, without meditation or fanfare—he hardly had time to withdraw his pointing finger. There was a flash and a burst and I rocked back. Then I saw the bullet, quivering like a silver bumblebee inches from Wagner’s chest. He was staring at it intensely, gritting his teeth. Then he raised his right forefinger and gently tapped the bullet’s snout. It dropped softly into the open palm resting on his lap.
Wagner has a handsaw strapped to his belt. He removes it, kneels down, and begins sawing the antlers from the skeleton’s skull. The cut bone smells like semen. With the antlers removed, Wagner slides the opal from them. I try to position myself between him and the helicopter as he does this.
Lunch break. I suggest that Wagner take out his astrolabe. He trots off excitedly to the shed, whistling through a mouthful of bread. I rinse the opal at the hose slit. Wagner returns with a bundle of purple velvet clutched to his chest. From it he removes the manual and stylus and calipers, which he hands to me. Then he removes the astrolabe, whose brass gleams in the noonday sun. I trace the opal on a blank page in the manual. Wagner ties a red shawl about his head and, standing just above the skull of the skeleton (where the antlers used to be), he adjusts some dials and dangles the astrolabe aloft, squinting upward. I stand pressed close behind him, my bearded chin resting on his shoulder, mimicking the angle of his gaze. I reach around his head and, whispering, make minute adjustments to the astrolabe’s position. Finally, after holding his breath for seconds, he reads out some coordinates, which I sit down to record in the manual. Then he swears. I look up: The helicopter has swerved so that it hovers between the astrolabe and the sun.
Wagner re-wraps the astrolabe, shaking his head and muttering. “We took some numbers,” I say reassuringly, handing him the manual. But I know. And he knows I know. He goes back to the shed and I can hear him slamming things in there. A large brown puddle is spreading from the gash in the hose. Birds and insects gather to drink from its edges. Some flies explore the blazing white bones of the skeleton. I tap gently against its brittle, bleached skull. Then it occurs to me to get up, go to the puddle, make a bowl of my two hands, and scoop some water from it. The water is so cloudy I can’t see my palms through it. I return to the skeleton and let the water spill through the skull’s left eye socket. Here comes Wagner from the shed, looking at me with curiosity. The last two fingers of his right hand, which are copper, gleam in the sun.
Last night I dreamt I awoke beneath the cloudless night sky and it was silent, except for a flapping sound. I looked up: Instead of the helicopter with its orange and green blinking lights, there hovered a trio of plump, winged beings, much as they are depicted in the old manuscripts we have stacked in the shed. There was a big one in a green robe, white wings outstretched behind its back, flanked by two smaller naked ones with thick orange hair. They held aloft a banner, which was bordered in the same shade of copper as Wagner’s fingers. The banner was ruffled by no wind. On it was written: Scenographia Systematis. Their chubby faces were impassive, inscrutable. They were illuminated by the beam of a powerful spotlight, which originated from beyond the horizon. I imagined it the spotlight on the deck of an aircraft carrier… But I awoke again to the sound of engines and clanging as they disassembled the warehouse.
Wagner was born in a province of cool river air, in a cream-colored house whose windows reflected the furze meadows, the silty banks thick with willow and buckthorn. Far out on the great brush piles heaped by the crass and sunburned harvesters stood sandhill cranes, regal, scarlet-crested avian sentinels; Wagner watched them, lying on his stomach in the dewy clover, through the silver telescope given him by his father, who daily rode a bicycle down the dirt road to the village, which was clamorous with church bells, the grumble of tractors hauling wagons heaped with plums and cantaloupes through narrow alleys, the wanton shouts of young clerks from the open windows of the law offices to an acquaintance smoking on a streetside bench, the splock of a rubber ball hurled at a clapboard fence by children in crimson school gowns. Wagner discovered a boarded-over well shaft in the bramble behind the stables. He uncovered it and listened down—he heard whisperings, unintelligible. Wagner once held the massive horns of a bull as it lay dying in the dirt. The horns went from warm to cold in his small hands. The bull’s eyes became dark clouds. Wagner grew up during the days of clean, thunderless rain; he and his sisters would drink from the drop-dimpled river, swim out to the island to hunt for blackberries on their hands and knees through the thickets. Wagner has been in a hot air balloon. He says the world is flat and endless.
A hornblast sounds from a speaker mounted beneath the eaves of the shed—lunch break is over. We grab our shovels and follow the hose to where it forks and drops into the canals. We drop our shovels to the bottom and descend our respective rope ladders. The canals are six feet deep by six feet wide and six feet apart from each other. They curve. It takes nearly two hours to walk in them to where we left off. This time we don’t bring our buckets.
We arrive at the ends of our canals. I touch the wall of earth in front of me—it is mostly clay, embedded with rocks and bottle shards and machine parts. Once, using my shovel, I dislodged another shovel from centuries before. It’s in the shed. The clay has baked hard in the heat. The hose would have helped soften it, but now no water reaches the nozzle, which lies at my feet. With my shovel blade I chip the canal further along. The earthen wall yields small chunks and powder and stones, which I heave up over the walls of the canal. I am tall enough so that I can—on tiptoe—peer out of my canal. Wagner is shorter than me—I see only his shovel blade occasionally flashing in the sun as he lifts his earth out of his trench. Looking the other way I see only unkempt weeds, thistle, Queen Anne’s lace. I monitor Wagner’s progress and take my breaks with his so that we keep abreast. I watch the cigarette smoke rising from his canal. There isn’t much sound except the scraping of our shovels, the grating clang as our blades collide with rock or metal, our breathing, Wagner cursing sometimes. The sun tilts low.
It still rains, but it rains less than it did years ago, and the rain that does come smells smoky, as if great fires are burning somewhere west.
Toward evening I extend my arm and when the sun measures two fingerbreadths from the horizon I give a whistle and Wagner and I turn and walk back to camp within our darkening trenches. Years of scooped earth form uneven mounds running along the outside edges of our canals. The closer we get to camp, the more rounded the mounds become, the more grass sprouts from them. When we arrive there is just enough light to make out our bag of food and tomorrow’s instructions folded in a plastic bag and set beneath a boulder beside our tarps. The instructions read what they usually read: “The canals.”
The puddle has widened to a pool, into which the hose and its slit disappear. It smells faintly of chlorine and pepper. Some animals still sip at its rim, too engrossed to look up as I bend down and scoop up two palmfuls and carry them over to the dim form of the skeleton. I kneel down and funnel more water into the eye socket.
“Where did you put the antlers?” I ask Wagner, gnawing a hardened hunk of cheese and staring into a small blue fire on which Wagner heats a can of beans. “My secret,” he says, looking up at the constellated dark. The helicopter makes no sound.
I dream that I wake up and look to Wagner, who sleeps. A lone insect grinds cyclically from a far treetop. The moon is full and on the ground I see a writhing trail of white ants wending from the pool. The ants climb the side of Wagner’s head and enter his left nostril, many of them carrying ovular eggs in their tiny jaws. They exit his right nostril, moist and eggless, and descend the other side of his face. His mouth is gaping but they don’t go there. I press my finger to my left nostril and I feel their feet clambering over my skin, the quivering brush of their antennae. I scream and sit up, awake. The moon is full. Wagner sleeps.
Morning. The pool has spread. We have to move our camp, which isn’t really a camp. The canals and the skeleton are still several hundred feet from the pool’s edge, in different directions. We can’t drink from the slit because we can’t move the hose, so what we drink is dirtier. As I drop water into the skull I notice the flies no longer pester the bones.
The sun and the heat. The residual blaze of days radiating through nights in which we sprawl shirtless on our tarps. Not a whisper of rain, the dew is sparse, and the forest curls inward upon itself. The sound of distant engines has receded to nothing. A stray birdcall. With the warehouse gone there is no need for the vehicles to return. But here is our shed. Here is where the hose emerges from the forest. And here is where our food is dropped, while we are miles out in the brown fields, chipping at stiff walls of earth.
The hose has been turned off. The pool grows no larger. Mornings we dip our buckets into it to carry with us to our labor. During rests we sip the hot, muddy waters. Wagner chuckles bitterly, shakes his head, says nothing.
The bones of the skeleton seem to moisten as I water the skull, the white softening to a cream.
One night I awake to a grinding from the shed. I sit up. Wagner is not beside me. I see the dim glow of his headlamp through the cracks around the door. Over breakfast I ask what he is working on in the shed. His eyes grow distant. “What are you working on with that skeleton?” he replies, raising an eyebrow. We both laugh, blushing.
It is difficult to determine the curvature of the canals, to know what design we are etching on the earth’s parched flank. We let our shovels guide us. Once there was the temptation to gain perspective on our work. Wagner was the first to succumb to this, years ago. We were resting in the evening, in the shade of our respective trenches. I heard the sounds of effort from Wagner’s canal. I stood on tiptoe and peered over the lip of my canal—though I could see across to Wagner, the mounds of dug earth on either side of us and the weeds in front prevented the gaze from extending. I saw Wagner’s dirty fingers gripping the top edge of his canal wall (the one furthest from me). Grunting, he hoisted himself up and swung a leg over the side and onto the ground. He was strong and could do this. He rested there for a moment before lifting the rest of himself out. He stood up, looked around, glanced nervously down at my agape face, and then stepped up on his mound of discarded earth. “I think—” he began, but then I heard an explosive crack in the distance, Wagner screamed, there burst a red cloud from his left hand, and he leapt back into his canal. He groaned, cursed, and whimpered for the remainder of the day and the walk back to camp. When we ascended our ladders I saw his bloodstained shirt wound tightly around his hand. Some bandages were in our food sack. The next morning his eyes were bruised and hollow, but he had calmed down. “What did you see?” I asked. He shook his head, his eyes welling with tears. Many days later and no further trespasses, we returned to camp to find two copper fingers with installation instructions in with our food. The process was relatively painless and Wagner ventured several jokes as we bent over his hand in the flickering blue light. “How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked upon completion, smiling shyly, the stiff copper digits glinting.
I work and think rude thoughts. Wagner and I used to shout riddles and stories to each other out of our canals. Now there is just the sound of our work. I forget a lot of what he said, and begin to grow suspicious of his past. I keep my head down. Once, though, I look up to see an enormous brown bovine head looking down at me. Its eyes are dark and soft, its jaws chewing something languidly. I reach up toward its moist, leathery snout, but it snorts and withdraws, leaving only the hot blue sky visible. “Wagner!” I shout. Seconds passed. “Yeah?” comes his answer, gruff, uninterested. “Never mind.” The chink and scrape of our shovels. Then I hear a pause in his labor. I pause. “I’ll be a son of a bitch!” I hear him exclaim. “What is it?” I ask. “I think I just saw a cow looking down at me.” “Really?” The helicopter is hardly more than a speck.
Wagner shakes me awake. He wears his headlamp, but the bulb has been extinguished, so it glints faintly in the light thrown from a moon neatly bisected, as if by a cleaver. With his head he gestures toward the helicopter, blinking high among the stars. I pull my tarp over us as we roll to our stomachs on the hot ground. He smells of sweat and is tense with excitement. Extending from his headlamp is an electrode which is pasted to his right temple, so that with a thought Wagner can operate the lamp. He illuminates the lamp briefly and before the light goes out I see a mound of white powder cupped in his palm. “Sniff some,” he breathes. I lower my head and do. Wagner does the same. The powder is what remains of the ground antlers of the skeleton. It still smells like coppery ejaculate. The effect is immediate. We fling the tarp from us and roll to our backs, accelerating toward the swarming profusion of stars. The universe dissolves into waves, which scatter, coalesce, penetrate, combine as thoughts into revelations, which devolve into incoherencies. We are expelled from the husks of our bodies in whatever direction perception swerves. Each thought is a meteor to which consciousness clings. My gaze strikes the helicopter, audibly. And I am there. I look down: our bodies, spread-eagled on the earth, minute. And near us: the canals curving through the dark plains. I see the shape we are digging these many years and a cry leaps from my throat. The canals form the outline of an ear, the ear of a monstrous head buried in the ground, an ear open to the skies. I hear indecipherable voices around me, raised in alarm. Whatever is in the helicopter senses my presence. With effort, I yank my attention away, and go roving among the blind panoramas of the night, my lungs harsh with exhilaration, my brow moist with the opaline dew of nameless galaxies twisting like stamens in the void. Wagner and I turn toward each other at dawn, heaving, parched. His eyes are bloodshot. “Your eyes are bloodshot,” he says.
The forest near our camp is leafless and rattling and the pool is so low we can almost count the remaining bucketfuls we will be able to draw from it. Some nights I wake in the blinding glare of the helicopter’s spotlight, which is instantly extinguished. Some nights I wake to the sound of Wagner rummaging in the shed. I hear him chanting—in delirium? My teeth are sore. This morning I woke up holding Wagner’s hand (which I instantly released), and heard the twittering of some stubborn bird deep in the tinder of underbrush. There was no dew on the brown grass.
What began as a cloud about the skeleton has been solidifying into flesh and sinews with my daily waterings. The face is still an eyeless blur, but it is becoming harder to see the skull beneath.
Days pass. We dig and scrape. The sky above is a scalding blue in which the helicopter hovers. A rash of pimples is spreading across our faces, though we continue to sip the dwindling and murky water. The food left for us in the sacks tastes bitter. Wagner betrays no indication that he was given to see the shape of the canals. Can I be sure of what I saw? I say nothing, for fear of neutralizing a secret.
If we have been tracing a giant ear in the earth for years, then we must now be returning to our point of origin. Yet we are confined to walking within our separate channels—forward and back—though this travel takes more than half of the work day, and we thus work less with each day. The calluses on my palms are cracked and bleeding.
Does Wagner think I don’t know about his nightly trips to the shed or what he does therein, does he think I don’t see his dark figure staggering about in the greater dark, the beam from his headlamp sweeping through the night? Or that I don’t sometimes awake to find him, spread-eagled, face-up, yards from the tarpaulin? Or that I don’t notice his sniffling, his bloodshot eyes, his grouchy, vacuous feebleness, his skin blanching in spite of the scalding sun? Does he think it will slake his thirst? Does he think he could murder me while I slept, or pretended to sleep? Do I think I would offer much resistance?
Four, maybe five bucketfuls left. My tongue is swollen too thick to speak. I sense Wagner deliberately loosening his bonds to the earth, his body. We scrape through the birdless silence.
Our food sacks arrive sparse, the bread hardened crusts, some of which looks already chewed. One morning, crouched eating, Wagner grunts and I look over: He is spitting his teeth into his palm. He stands, calmly walks to the edge of his canal, and flings them in. The same thing happens to me the next morning. And the following morning: no food. It is always too late to prepare to be forgotten.
At dusk I carry the mud-caked bucket sloshing with the last cup of hot brown water across the parched earth to where the fleshing skeleton lies. I dump our remaining water into the slowly swirling viscera of a vague face both bestial and familiar, and I toss the bucket aside and I trudge back to the tarp, where Wagner and I lie facing each other with half-lidded eyes, expectant, like grungy corpses set out to dry beside an archaeological dig.
Night. I sit up. There is a distant, insectile buzzing. I look across the moonsilvered ground: the skeleton is gone. I sink back to the tarp, down through the tarp to a dream of a cave in the Sudanese highlands, from the stone floor of which I witness a violet mushroom sprouting. I lean toward it.
And wake up in the gray pre-dawn. The buzzing has grown intense. Wagner and I sit up simultaneously. The helicopter has landed where the skeleton used to be. It is silver and seamless and windowless and its six blades are still. A portal opens, revealing the dwarf king, clad in a purple robe. From its skull two antlers sprout. Wordlessly he beckons us and wordlessly we enter.
The blades begin to spin, become a whirring silver disk. We rise. Through the floor of the helicopter we watch the canals fill with a bubbling and gushing obsidian fluid, streaked violet, rushing and splashing through the channels of our making. Our work is finished, or so we think, and the thought springs black and glinting, a flowing mirror beneath our ascension.