by Liz Wasson Coleman
I drop my shovel. It falls against the loose soil, leaden. All around us, earth swallows the sound. We are underground.
The kerosene lanterns let out a nearly imperceptible hiss. Set on overturned wooden crates, their tiny flames produce halos just faint enough to swallow our fading shadows. We flicker against the sodden wall behind us: Plato’s cave.
I leave my shovel in the dirt and walk toward the mouth of the tunnel. “I’m going to ask about the next step,” I turn and call out to them. They don’t stop digging. They can’t hear me.
I push aside the tarp with one hand, shielding my eyes with the other. I blink and it all comes into focus: the dusty slope dotted with shrubs falls away. Peat wetlands crowd the river far below. Across the valley, clouds are snagged on sharp bluffs.
She is a few yards down the hill, but she hears the rustle of the tarp and hikes back up to see me. Her mouth is stretching to smile but I can tell she is pretending not to see the worst of it.
“Thirsty?” she asks, but doesn’t wait for a reply. She picks up a gallon jug of drinking water and pours some into a mason jar. “How are you all holding up down there?” My hands reach out for the water. She tries not to hesitate.
I take a deep pull from the glass, swallow, and wait. Nothing seeps out. I take another sip before I answer. “They’re still digging into the hill, but I think this is as deep as we’re going. I wanted us to get further but I don’t think we’ll make it.”
Hair whips her face as the gusts pick up. She nods a little to let me know she understands and then her eyes flit back and forth, searching mine. I know what she’s looking for. She stops staring when she doesn’t find it and starts filling a second jar with water. Her mouth is set in a straight, determined line.
“But how are they holding up,” she asks again, with emphasis. She’s poured the second glass of water and her eyes are asking me: Do they really need this? I give a small shake of my head. She pulls the jar to her own lips instead.
“They’re getting close,” I tell her. “They know it. They’re stretched. They’re...thinning out.” She takes another sip of water and tries not to look at me, but nods for me to continue. “It’s starting to spread down their arms too, but they can’t feel it, so they just keep digging.”
I pause to take another drink. As I swallow, a bit dribbles down my chin and I fight the habit of wiping it away with my forearm.
“You can’t see bone yet but it won’t be long. Even so, their hands still look better than mine,” I admit. I hold one out for inspection. My wrappings are soaked through. She grimaces. “It doesn’t hurt,” I remind her.
She takes the water glass out of my feeble grip and sets it down on the makeshift table, a piece of plywood on top of old sawhorses. “Sit down.” She gestures to an overturned milk crate. I comply.
I hold my arms out to her, a sacrifice. She unravels the gauze from my hands, blackened, soil and blood commingled indiscriminately. She stuffs the infected bandages into a plastic bag with others just like them, then we inspect together: first the backs of my hands, then where my palms used to be, and from my wrists to my elbows.
I can’t stop it now: the truth tumbles out. “It’s traveled up their spines, eating away at them. The vertebrae are exposed and I can’t tell anymore if they were male or female. And...they’ve lost their...hearing.” I can’t bring myself to say their ears have disappeared.
A pause. “I don’t think they should come out here again,” she says quietly, not looking up from my hands as she says it.
“I think they already know that.” We both fall silent, still looking at my hands, processing it: Disintegration.
What little skin is left is thinner than vellum, withered and brittle and taut. Atrophied muscle tissue peeks through, fibers no longer red but the color of raw meat that’s about to spoil. Trails of my nervous system, unraveling like rotting twine, travel up my forearms and finally disappear under the healthier flesh near my elbows.
She unscrews the cap of the water jug again and pours some over my cupped hands. We watch it stream right through, time slipping through my grasp. She reaches for a shoe box filled with clean gauze and strips of muslin.
“You aren’t wearing gloves anymore,” I notice.
“I ran out,” she admits. “And honestly, from what I’m seeing, I don’t think it matters anymore.” She sighs, and I see it in her shoulders: she is more tired than I am.
She begins rewrapping my right hand like a boxer, alternating around the open palm and between each wasted finger. “You know we haven’t bothered with iodine or peroxide in days.” I nod. “We understand it won’t stop spreading once it’s begun, but…my latest theory is you either have it, or you don’t.”
“We’re carriers,” I whisper.
She finishes wrapping my hand and pulls a map out of her back pocket, then sits down cross-legged in the sun-bleached grass to show it to me. “I think it’s geographic,” she explains as she unfolds it. It’s a surveyor’s map, fluid lines showing changes in elevation like rings in a tree stump telling time.
She’s marked it up over the last few weeks, notes and scribbles in shorthand that only she understands. Scanning the edges of it, she points out the hill we’re digging into, where the lines tighten and spiral around one another like a fingerprint.
“Everyone we’ve seen so far comes from the south side of the river.” Her finger glides down the map and traces the waterway that bisects our town.
I hover my freshly-wrapped hand over the paper landscape. There is no tight crosshatch of streets, no dead ends marked out on this map, but I don’t need street names or landmarks to recognize home. “I grew up right here.” I point to an area that shows no elevation gain, near the industrial zone along the river. “And we found them just a few blocks away,” I add, lifting my chin to gesture behind me, into the tunnel.
“And I’ve always lived over here.” She runs her finger along the river, stopping on its north side and running it up to the bluffs that overlook the valley. We look up from the map and across the canyon to the cliffs behind us. I wonder which of the glimmering glass houses perched along the precipice is hers, but I don’t ask. We sit silent for a moment.
“Who knew it’d come down to zip codes?” I say aloud, to no one.
We see the dust kicked up on the road below us before we hear the engine. We scan the horizon, waiting for the vehicle to appear. “How many is he bringing this time?” I ask.
“At least a dozen,” she whispers, then clears her throat. “All from your district.” She stares down the hill as the pickup chases the narrow switchbacks, sutures closing a wound.
“I’ll go let them know it’s time.” I stand and begin to turn back to the excavation site.
“Wait. I still need to wrap your other hand,” she reminds me. She moves more hastily now, her fingers still nimble, skin still pliable. I wish I could remember what that feels like, but memories are blurring now.
The truck’s motor is straining up the hillside, alerting us to what is coming. She rushes to finish wrapping my wrist. “They can’t hear him,” I remind her. She nods, but doesn’t slow down.
“All done.” Her eyes meet mine again. She doesn’t look away this time. “I think you only have one or two more days out here. Maybe.”
“I know,” I reassure her. “But in the meantime I will do whatever I can.”
Together we watch the beat up Toyota pickup struggle over loose gravel. The truck bed is covered with a tarp, just like the one covering our tomb. A corner has come loose and is flapping in the wind but a few cement blocks weigh the rest of it down, covering its haul. The load isn’t heavy enough to keep the bald tires from spinning, but he’s making progress.
Absentmindedly, she dusts off the seat of her shorts. I take one last drink of water, emptying the jar and setting it on the plywood table. She leads me to the tarp and holds it open as I pass back through. My eyes adjust to the dimness.
“I’ll go let them know it’s time,” I say again, into the darkness. She drops the tarp behind me.
I follow the rhythm of their digging until my eyes adjust again. The kerosene lanterns still hiss, but the shadows have nearly vanished. I lean over and pick up my shovel. As I approach them they startle, then search my face in the dim light for an answer.
“Is it time?” one of them tries to ask me. The words are slurred. They no longer have lips to shape them. Their tongue catches in their throat.
“It is time,” I tell them. They read my lips and drop their shovels in relief. They walk away from me until the lamplight cannot reach them, until what is left of them is drowned in the darkness.
About the Author
Liz Wasson Coleman holds a BA in Arts & Literature from Antioch University. Her writing includes memoir, lyric essay, fiction, hybrid poetry, and journalism. She resides with her family in a little Craftsman house in Seattle's Central District.