WE MARK OUR TERRITORY
When I built the wall, my wife told me it was too much. She left before I could encircle our land with even one layer of the mud bricks. She said, They know not to come here. She said, There is no need. She draped wool over my shoulders and placed her hand on my head as a mother to her child. She said, We can have our own life.
I hardly looked up from my hands, wet from the stone I used to flatten and shape the bricks. She was gone by the time the wall was past my hips.
Lions, they said. They came into a foreign man’s camp, dragged away his men, strong men who had hunted, tasted raw flesh, built sections of railroad.
Demons, they said. They left the bodies of cattle and goats around the foreign man’s camp. The men shot at them with silver bullets. They left bloody puddles but returned the next night and the next until there were no more men to lay the lines. Only the man in charge, one-handed and silent.
I wrapped the wool around my waist. I rested in the shade of the wall, dreaming of lions with their jaws hanging open, fingers and eyes in their teeth, wedding rings vomited into dirt. I awoke to the moon, my hands to my face, rubbing the mud into my closed eyes.
By the time I finished, the lions had been felled by bullets tipped with poison. It took two dozen men to carry those two bodies now weighed down with lead and bones and a hand swallowed whole. The foreign man took their skulls and burned the rest. He buried the ashes somewhere deep in the forest for fear of spirits, of demons reborn.
By the time I finished, my weak legs standing on the great scaffolding, my muscles creaking and aching, my back bent, the years woven into my beard, the gravity taking hold of my bones, I wondered at what my wife had said, but fell back against the wood beams as I had forgotten her face, her smile, her touch, all replaced by yellow eyes, teeth, mane, blood running rivulets from bullet-drilled holes.
WE CAN'T SOLVE EVERYTHING
The creek was mud churned by moving water. Two fish chased each other through the moss and sticks reaching like fingers from below. The shadow of leaves and sun. Stones making nooks inside boulders. A tree carved with initials and clumsy hearts.
She called it a picnic, but we sat without food or a blanket, our feet curled into the cool sand, our bodies held so close that I felt protected, like I was stitched into her skin.
I told her the creek water—thick, dark, swallowing reflections—reminded me of the medicine my father used to sell in the summers. His suit pressed with sharp creases, his shoes click-clacking against the railroad lines. He strolled right up to the men swinging hammers, hauling metal strips, felled trees, pails of bitumen.
Drink this, he said, You will become stronger than the rest, lift boulders with a single finger, father beautiful children.
And the men would laugh, wave him away. The way his suit sagged when he came home. The softness of his shoes. The wrinkle of his shirt clinging to his back.
Cough medicine, I told her. It was simple cough medicine, nothing more.
You can’t blame him for trying, she said. I threw sand into the water and watched the fish scatter.
He drank what was left over until his breath smelled sticky-sweet with cherries and mint.
At best: snoring in his leather chair.
At best: forgetting my name.
At worst: forgetting the idea of home.
At worst: the way the walls shook with his confusion, his fists breaking against my locked door.
And soon, my mother left him. And me. And the brown bottles, the potions that conjured great chasms between us.
I flattened the sand with my palms. She pulled her legs up, held them to her chest, her head on her knees. We make mistakes sometimes, she said.
Does that make it okay? I whispered, sifting pebbles through my fingers.
She turned my head, framing my cheeks in her palms. From that angle: her eyelashes, her hazel eyes, her nose, her lips on every part of me.
Only if you want it to be, she said. Her lips again, the creek shifting moss and stone.
THE DAYS WHEN FLESH HELD LIGHT
These were the foods I had been ordained to eat in the days before I was sent away: potatoes, salt, horse meat kept bloody, onions dipped in vinegar, raw and bitter and sharp. She fed me with a wooden spoon, carved and polished with butter and coconut oil. She said, It is meant to keep you strong, to keep your blood clean and your senses full.
I tried to hide any sign of weakness or protest as she never once showed tears. She knew it was for the greater good of the colony, that I was needed for everything else to work.
In the day, I worked to condition my body. I filled bags with stones from the river, carried them up the hill, and stacked them against our well. I pulled logs until my skin tore and filled with splintered bark.
At night, I became selfish. My body curled around her. The smell of fields and honey in her hair. Every curve in her face, her hips brought even with mine. How I wanted to stay. How I kissed every part of flesh because even in our years of marriage, there were parts I didn’t know, parts my mind couldn’t sketch.
Her older sister had been chosen when she was little. She said, I was scared for her, but I saw her pride. I saw her courage. I remember she said she would become machines. She would help fallow the earth. She would churn our water. She would keep the moon lit.
In the night before my processing, we worked to mix our bodies into one, to combine sweat and sigh and cradled limbs, and at the end, still hanging over me, she said, I can find someone else.
In the morning, the sun hung as a lip over the tree line. She held my face, said, You alone will power the whole city with your blood, your muscles, your aching joints.
The procession came to take me. The preacher held an ax to my throat and rope to my wrists. He spoke words of blood and binding, lightning and rain. He said, Either way, the only out is iron. You are now our charge. You are now our own.
I turned to kiss her one last time, long and short at the same time. I said, Maybe just one more night. Just one more life. We can live without electricity.
She held my hand, smiled, said, That’s not how this works.
As the procession led me past the wood posts that held the rusting wire encircling our land, I thought of the gears and pistons that would turn me into energy. I looked back and saw her waiting for me to leave, her hair covering her face. She waved.
I imagined her new life. She would meet someone new. She would point to every light bulb, every discolored television, every crackling radio and say, That used to be my husband. I used to love that static. I used to love that glow.