He stands under the hot sun, shovel in hand, shirt draped loosely across his shoulders to minimize the burn he knows he will inevitably get. The dirt is hot, the humidity is hot, the wood of the shovel in the palm of his hand is hot. He can’t pause for long; he has a job to do, money to earn, bills to pay.
But he was struck by a sudden vision: a mother, her boys crowded around her, listening to her read them a story. She smiles that funny little smile she has, her tongue just barely poking out between her teeth, and one wayward curl sticks out awkwardly.
He stares into the ditch he is digging, a ditch like all the hundreds of ditches he has dug before, like all the hundreds he will dig in the future, and for just a minute he can feel their skin on his skin, the coolness of her hand on his hot, hot cheek. He swallows hard, missing them for just a minute, then blinks the vision away with a swing of the shovel.
For just a couple of hours, he will be with them tonight.
Tomorrow he will be back out here, digging the ditch again; but tonight, he will come home knowing that his wife and children are safe and happy. He will bear the callouses on his hands, the sweat in his boots, the mud and the dirt and the shit on his skin, the heat on his back, day after day after day, so that they don’t have to.
When was the last time I read a book? she wonders to herself, but out loud she shouts, “OK! That’s enough! Everybody BE QUIET!”
For the first time this morning, all noise and activity finally cease except for the whimpering of the two-year-old, who is nursing a smacked cheek. The smacker, a disgruntled four-year-old, stares up at his mother with almost comically moistened eyes and a very pouty set of lips. Then a tiny space appears between the top and bottom, and that noise spills out again, that awful whine… the elementary age kids shrug and turn back to their road, their cars revving up in whispers that she knows will escalate back into roars within ten minutes.
That half-second of near-silence was bliss.
He spins idly in his computer chair, trying to figure out why this drawing doesn’t feel right. The blade isn’t sharp enough, the blood isn’t red enough, the girl isn’t… well, why would she?
He can feel her in his entire being, he can feel her energy in his body, almost like he’s possessed… like she is the demon possessing him… A burst of energy sends him jumping up, fumbling for his cigarettes and letting out his uneasiness in a string of senseless curses. It’s getting worse, but what can he do about it?
Not a damn thing.
It was her choice, she had to have her choice and she didn’t choose him. And so here he sits, dying slowly, nailing himself to his own cross so she can be free. Is it fear that keeps him from pursuing her again? It’s not a question he even knows to ask.
He can’t live without her; so he wallows in death so that she can have her life.
He gasps under the lash, his skin raw and burning, ripped and bleeding, his insides turning out. The drone of the count goes on, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, on and on they go as the lash rips again.
He still feels human, but he knows that pretty soon he won’t. Pretty soon he will be beyond human, beyond any conscious knowledge of the existence of anything other than the searing, burning, tearing, breaking. He will be beyond control of his faculties; people will see him soil himself, hear him moaning in nonverbal agony; and although they may be suffering to hear him they will do nothing to ease his pain.
But he loves them anyway.
He thinks of the incredible people he has met over the past few years, the men who have stood with him in the face of all the Rules and Laws that have enslaved them for so long, the women who endured so much so he could keep going. The children who have sat in his lap and listened to his stories.
Even the oppressors themselves, those white-clad Wolves in sheep’s clothing; he can see the loops of fear they trap themselves in, those scared little boys parading as leaders. They aren’t really the Wolves; deep down, they are the sheep, letting the Wolf take the reins. Yet he knows they are doing the best they can with the measly bits of real love they have been given in their lifetimes.
And still the count goes on. He cries in earnest, in agony, but he knows he has chosen the right thing. His is certain his death is worth more than his life ever could have been. His death will give them freedom from the Laws of the Wolves, will give them hope, and he knows he will live on because of them in some way or another.
Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one. The lashings are almost done, and the worst is yet to come. He closes his eyes.
Above all, he misses his mother.