A story I wrote for a contest on the environment. I’d like to think it’s my best yet, but that’s not for me to decide, is it.
The title comes from a Wordsworth poem. “Lines written in early spring”. He was contemplating nature and then lamented “What man has made of man”. I know it might be an insult to Wordsworth to use his poem for such an amateur story but hey we all need to earn a living.
“Move out you say?” said the farmer.
“Yes sir,” said the worker. He looked at the floor. “I’m sorry.”
The farmer looked at him mouth open in incomprehension.
“We got the papers, old man,” said the foreigner. He stood behind the worker in the shade, tapping the ash from his cigarette in one hand and with the other fanning himself with a folder of documents. His sweat glistened on his fat, pale neck and his long-sleeved shirt had turned dark around his armpits and under his breasts.
The farmer scratched the top of his head with a hand covered in a fine layer of soil, the sunbaked and wrinkled hand itself close to decomposition due to age and of such similar aspect crumbly and earthy and organic that it was difficult to tell where the skin stopped and the soil began, as though the soil from which that farmer came and was made, at once his original home and future dwelling, was already beckoning him back.
“The papers?” he said.
“Mandate of the law,” said the foreigner.
“The law?” The farmer had shifted his eyes to the foreigner but they seemed to pass through, radius of sight extending to the land behind him or some other land farther yet. “I’ve lived here all my seventy-three years. All my life, as my father before me and his father my grandfather before him. And the Lord has willed that this land continue to bear fruit for us through all these years and may He will that the land continue to bear fruit for generations after me. I reckon that the Law of the Lord outdo any law made by any man.”
The worker turned his head to look at the foreigner. He continued smoking and said nothing. He tapped the cigarette onto the farmer’s crops, gray tobacco ashes falling on the green leaves like some cruel, grotesque announcement of what end awaited them. He smiled at last.
“Subdue the earth and have dominion over all creation, saith the Lord.” The foreigner chuckled. “That was His mandate. And we his humble servants carrying out His just Will.”
“You blaspheme,” said the farmer. “Humble servants?”
“Humble servants. We have come to claim our dominion over the earth and fill it, as is written in the good Book. Widen this dominion and make the soil we expose and upon which we tread render more. Bring out its full potency. Whereas you, with your old ways of doing things and your old-fashioned ways of thinking and your resistance to progress, not just ours but of mankind as a whole, you do just the opposite of what the Lord has commanded. If there is anyone impeding the completion of His Will, it is you, you miserable jackass.”
The worker looked at the farmer.
“Stewards,” he muttered. “Stewards, not lords. Stewardship, not dominion. There is but one Lord, and that One will ask of each an account of how we have treated his land. This at the end of time.”
The foreigner looked at his watch. He seemed not to have heard. “We have to go, old man.”
The farmer said nothing.
“As the Lord is just so will I be,” said the foreigner. “We’ll give you a month to move out. And then we tear this place down.”
The worker looked at the old farmer in the eyes. He said nothing and only stared back, as though all he needed to say was articulated by that silent gaze. As though the words spoken and familiar to man were inadequate or laughable even and all left to suffice were those eyes, dulled by age yet nevertheless preserving their essential intensity, each serving as aperture for the overflow of his interior.
“Let’s go,” the foreigner told the worker.
As they went on their way the farmer called out to them, “And where do we move to, you reckon?”
The foreigner did not turn to look. “One month,” he called back.
On their way out of the farm it was noon and the tropical sun beat down on them. The foreigner wiped his face with his handkerchief. “The heat of this hell-hole,” he said. “I expect the devil himself to come any minute.”
The worker said nothing and they continued their walk back to the station.
“Where is that farmer to go, sir?” the worker said at last.
“What the old man wants to do with the years left to him is none of my business.”
“He has a family to feed.”
“Don’t we all.”
The worker swallowed. “Can’t we offer him work, sir? Once we’ve cleared the land and expanded the farm, can’t we get him to farm for us?”
The foreigner wiped his crumpled and saturated handkerchief on his neck once more. He rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger as though deep in thought but you couldn’t tell if it was authentic or feigned. “It would be imprudent,” he said. “That is a man of the old ways, and to teach him would mean more expense for our enterprise. We aren’t even sure if he can yield us much more years. Meanwhile, we have men young and trained and able, ready to do the work for us.”
He smiled. “This is a business, not a charity. We got a budget to follow and stakeholders to please.”
“Just doesn’t seem right to kick a man and his family off his own land is all.”
“How would you feel, if I were to kick you out of your job right now and replace you with some senile elder under the pretext that he was my grandfather and I care for him. That seem right to you?”
“No, sir. No, it don’t.”
“So. There you have it.”
They walked in silence until they arrived at the station.
Days later the worker was in the woods surveying the land for clearing and then he heard a buzz, loud and aggressive, approaching. It was the mulcher clearing through the trees and it was getting to him fast.
“Oh Christ,” he said and then ran. “I’m still here,” he shouted. It was in vain. The sound of the buzzing was too loud and even he couldn’t hear himself. He looked up behind him and saw the long cutter of the mulcher descending fast to eat up the tree beside him and he jumped away. He felt something grind into his lower legs. This produced a grating sound and he had to pull out his legs with his arms.
He looked down and what he saw made him lightheaded. The gore looked like legs of ham worked through, red with spots of white and loose skin hanging around. It was warm and wet and the sweet, rusty smell swamped the air. Amidst the red mess he could make out the two limbs although each of a slightly different shape and one was twisted to a strange position.
The other employees saw him and ran at him. They told the operator to turn the engine off and they crowded around him and some when they saw him up close couldn’t bear to look. One kneeled to the ground pressing his hands to his face as though in so doing he could erase from his eyes what he had seen. Another vomited.
“Move over, I said,” a voice said from behind the employees. It was the foreigner, accent unmistakable. He got to the front of the crowd and then he saw it.
“I’ll be damned,” he said. He clapped his hand to his forehead and he looked up to the sky as if yonder lay the cause of his ill-fate. “How long. How long must I suffer these fools.” He stood staring at the worker, face cast over by a shadow as though this were the precise expression to reflect what he felt.
“Please,” the worker said. He breathed heavily and frantic and it was difficult to distinguish which the pant and which the word. “Help.”
The foreigner only stared down at him.
“What do we do, sir?” one of the employees said.
“We ought to take him to a doctor, no?” said another.
The foreigner took out a cigarette and then lighted it. All the employees watched him. He took a puff from the cigarette and then exhaled the smoke.
“No,” he said.
There was a murmur among the crowd.
“Not take him to a doctor, you say?” said one of them.
The murmur grew.
“As it is, we are already behind budget and behind time. Taking him to a doctor and waiting for him, we’ll be putting ourselves behind yet more. We don’t even know if he’ll ever be fit to work again.”
“What do we do, then? Just leave him be?”
“And let him bleed to death?”
“Listen. I’m not going to let the fault of one fool put this entire project in jeopardy. We haven’t even cleared out all the land let alone prepare the soil for the new farms and now this happens. We stop now and eat even more into what’s left of the budget for this fellow here and his tomfoolery, it will be the end not only for me. It will be for all of you. Anyone want to sacrifice this project for this here man?”
None of the employees answered. The foreigner threw the cigarette half-finished onto the ground and then rubbed it into the earth with his boot. “Dispose of him as you please,” he said. “I expect that this delay gets subtracted from your breaks. The precise number of man-hours. Including his.” He walked back to the office trailer.
They drew lots to see who would be the one to finish him. It fell on a pimply youth who looked like he had hardly left adolescence. They gave him a pistol and a shovel. He took him into the thick of the forest and when he dragged him by the armpits on the ground his legs left a trail of blood on the earth like some lavish pagan offering sprinkled to the god lurking beneath.
When the youth pointed the pistol at him he sat on the ground with his head inclined. A pool of blood started to form around him from the carnage.
“Do it,” he said. “Get it over with.”
The youth’s hands shook as he held out the pistol. The pistol shaking as though it too were possessed by its own terror. A tense, breathless silence.
At last he put it down. “I can’t,” he said.
“I can’t.” He stared at that man on the ground and then turned around and ran.
“Please,” he shouted after the youth. He received no reply but the stumbling footsteps, rapid, awkward, and fading.
Late in the night he woke up to the sound of a dog barking, the darkness such that you could not tell the difference whether your eyes were open or closed. An intense pain pressed on him from his thighs down as though some giant creature had clamped all its teeth into it not letting go. It made his breathing labored. He felt weak and tried to call out but no sound came from his throat made dry by the pain. He heard the barking come closer. A lamplight filled the void around him and he squinted.
“There’s someone here, papa.” It was the voice of a young man. He drew the lamp down to the worker and then jerked it back. “Oh Jesus.”
“What is it, Pete?” It was the voice of the farmer, himself drawing nearer with his own lamp.
“Oh Jesus,” Pete said again. The worker tried to get up supporting himself on his forearms behind him. He could not and crashed back into the dirt. “He’s still alive, pa.”
The farmer came and shined the light on the worker’s face. He saw how the farmer’s eyes lit up in recognition although he stayed crouched saying nothing. The son stood a distance gibbering to himself as though recalling words memorized from some arcane, catacombic rite. The farmer moved the lamp to his legs and studied it.
“Oh Lord,” said Pete. “What do we do, pa?”
“We got to take him to the doctor.”
“Good grief Pete the man’s losing blood. Stop wasting around and go get the truck Christ’s sake.”
When the pickup arrived they lifted him carefully by the armpits and the legs and placed him at the back of the pickup. Before the departure Pete had said to him You hold on now, sir but the farmer in his turn had not addressed him with a single word. On the way a large bump of the road caused him a sharp pain in the legs and he lost consciousness.
He woke up on a mattress. The brightness of the room and the smell of antiseptic made his head hurt. He looked down at his legs. Casts, fresh and white, covered each, metal rods sticking out without apparent order nor calculated configuration as if those limbs were not the original in its place a mishmash from pieces disparate and tawdry held together with those rods hoping that some organic force animate from within or from God knows where amalgamate them all, the precipitate serving without fault the purpose of what it had replaced. Looking at it intensified the bite he felt in his thighs. The pain made him dizzy and he wished he hadn’t looked. When his eyes focused back he saw the doctor looking over him.
“He’s awake,” said the doctor.
“Thank God,” said Pete. He stood by the bed with the doctor.
“I’ll be. Give it about a month or so and he be up and about again. Good as new, almost. A literal walking miracle.” The doctor chuckled at his own wit. He looked down at his patient with a sort of love, not as a father to his son so much as a carpenter to his newly made table.
“A fine piece of work, if I may say so myself,” said the doctor. “It’s a darn good thing the damage was not as bad as it looked. A fine piece of work nevertheless, yes sir. But couldn’t have done it without him. That man over there saved your life.”
The doctor motioned with his head to where the farmer stood in a corner of the room looking down. “Haven’t done nothing,” he said.
The doctor waved his hand. “None of that, now. If you hadn’t rushed this man here as you did, he would have bled himself out. I doubt he’d still be here today.” The farmer mumbled something else but it was inaudible.
“We’ll be keeping you here another day,” said the doctor to his patient. “After that a weekly checkup would suffice, it looks to me. You won’t be moving around much, though. You got somebody to take care of you at home?”
“I live alone.”
“That’s a problem.”
“He can stay with us,” said the farmer. “We got an extra room and we can take care of him til he can walk again.”
The doctor shook his head smiling. “I’ll be. Good to know there’s still christians left in this world.”
When the worker turned again to the farmer the farmer stayed standing silent with his head down.
They took him home to their cabin the evening of the next day. It was small and barely furnished but clean, and had the faint, organic smell of grass and corn and herbs. They laid him in a cot in a small room. The farmer had still not said a word to him.
The morning after Pete entered the room with a bowl of steaming rice porridge and on it strips of dried fish. “Do you want me to help you eat?”
He stood to watch the worker eat but the worker looked up at him with spoon poised over the food.
“I think I’ll come back when you finish,” Pete said. He made to go out of the room.
Pete stopped and turned around.
“Your father. He paid for all this, didn’t he.”
“The doctor subsidized part of it.”
The worker opened his mouth as if to say something but no words came out.
“Hey,” Pete said. “Forget about it.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Consider it a gift. They think it impolite to turn them down around here, you know.”
“Thanks. Thanks for all of this.”
“Don’t you mention it.”
“Listen. Please tell your father for me for now. I get the impression he doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“He doesn’t talk much to strangers.”
“This isn’t the first time we’ve met.”
“Pa told me about it.”
“Give him time.”
Within two weeks he was strong enough to move himself about on a wheelchair the doctor had lent. One day on his asking Pete pushed him to the field nearby where the farmer was working. He was cutting down tall stalks with a sickle. When he heard the wheelchair he looked up and saw who was coming and then he got back to cutting.
“You should be resting,” the farmer said. He didn’t even look up.
“I still haven’t thanked you personally.”
“No need to.”
“Listen. I mean it. Thank you.”
The farmer continued to cut. You wouldn’t have guessed he was old looking from behind for he moved with the energy of a man less than half his age. He placed the stalks on a large pile beside of him. The worker looked up at Pete behind him and Pete motioned with his head that they return to the cabin.
The worker turned back to the farmer. “I don’t blame you if you still hold a grudge against me. In fact I admire that you saved me in spite of it.”
The farmer stopped cutting and wiped his face with the towel draped around his neck. He bent down to gather and tighten the pile of stalks on the ground.
“But I feel it right to clear this out,” said the worker. “I’m sorry if the corporation wants to kick you out of the farm. But I had nothing to do with the decision. I was merely the messenger sent.”
“I’m not mad at you.”
The farmer picked up the pile and put it on his shoulders and turned around to face the worker. “When a machine cause trouble to a man it’s not the cogs he should be mad at but the operator.”
The worker could not reply. The farmer left and walked away from them with the stalks.
That evening when he lay on the cot the farmer entered the room with a tray of two mugs steaming. He sat up.
“Hope you weren’t sleeping.”
The farmer held up the tray and set it on a bedside table.
“Tea of ginger,” he said.
The worker took a cup and sipped.
“It’s good,” he said, and it was.
“Glad of it. My wife makes them best.”
The farmer took a chair near the bed and the two of them sat sipping the tea.
“Wish I could have done something for you,” said the worker.
“Don’t sweat it, son. Nothing one can do about it.”
“You ever think about working for them instead?”
The farmer looked at him as though he had said something atrocious.
“I mean they could hire Pete instead and who knows, you could even earn more and”
“Hah. You don’t understand it do you.”
“You speak of the modern way as if it were the right way. As if all progress were something to be welcomed. Lauded even.”
“I never said that.”
“You take it for granted.”
“Well progress is good isn’t it? I mean we’re yielding more crop from the land. And we see the good effects. We’re living longer than ever before. The quality of life for all has improved radically. Would you say that’s a bad thing?”
The farmer grinned at his cup. Like some old diviner who in the dregs of that stew had presaged some future reckoning and held it as an amusing confidence known only to he and his goblet, makeshift but nonetheless efficacious.
“Look what they done to you, son. They left you to die and rot in the soil as if you were just another tractor for the junkyard, conked out and proved useless for the enterprise. You really believe that they’ve acted with fellow men in mind?”
The worker did not reply. The farmer sighed and finished what remained in his cup.
“I’m not against progress. The good Lord himself willed that we fill the land and subdue his creation. But only as administrators. Only for the common good of all men. Man has made himself lord, his wants now the center of the universe, the pursuit of his selfish and instantaneous ends cloaked under the guise of progress. And this progress so-called has turned against him. The world has rebelled against us like a fed-up and abused slave. Warming of the earth and calamities and disasters.”
The farmer shook his head and set his cup on the tray. “I reckon you’ve seen it yourself. It is the end of us, I tell you.”
The worker coughed on his tea. “The end of us? So you think that this climate change means the world is ending. Man has always adapted hasn’t he?”
“The havoc we wreak on nature will not be the cause of our downfall. It is but a manifestation. The outcrop of a deeper corruption. Man destroys the earth? Hah. We think so highly of ourselves. No, it is man that destroys man, and our abuse of the earth is but the spillover of our abuse of man, both propelled by a manic obsession to fulfill selfish whims.
“Don’t you see it? That is the way our world ends. When we cease to see man as man, a cog instead of a spirit. Love becomes lust and humans become utilities. We cease to be men ourselves, but a mere configuration of glands insatiable meant only to consume. Meant only to think in the immediate pleasure. And the men among us become but stones to step on as we scramble to get to the summit. And everything will go crumbling to our downfall.”
The farmer fixed that intense gaze on him. “It’s the sign of the end. The moment we say it.”
“That a man is just one more man.”
Less than two weeks later the doctor had removed the cast off of one of the legs and he could support himself with crutches. The day after the farmer entered his room and said Come, you’re probably sick of having been cooped up here so long. He drove him out to a foothill near the farm.
They overlooked the vast hectares of land. The thick of the forest trees and beside it the farm with its rows of banana and rice plantations. In the middle of everything the spilled blue honey of the lake. In the distance the ridges of mountains like backs of giant cattle, dormant creatures from another world entire. A fine stratum of fog covering the view like a translucent veil. As though all of this were just a dream. A dim prefiguration of some promise transcendent and godmade of a future dimension or arcadian state but even now even in this life just the glimpse, muted and distant and hazy as it be, was enough to stop your heart.
“Wow,” said the worker.
“Precious, isn’t it.”
Neither commented on the peripheral patch made bald by the land clearing. They stood to admire the view, eating with their hands like how they did it around here the lunch that the farmer’s wife had prepared for them. The wind blew cool and the sun beat down on them.
The farmer finished his food and wiped his hands on his trousers and chewed on a blade of grass.
“One gets to appreciate it more from here,” the farmer said.
The farmer seemed not to hear. “The ancients used to see all of nature as a book. The stones and the trees and the creatures the words written by the Creator himself, laid open to captivate man in its beauty and invite him to read and contemplate and know Him.”
The worker looked at the farmer and, seeing him, dared not speak. The farmer seemed not to be addressing him, but rather hearing an idea he had kept long canned in him spoken aloud at last.
He sighed. “And yet man in his conceit and hubris would choose to erase the Book and, in rewriting it, abrogate Him. Such that Man himself becomes author and creator and lord and god. Such that his children and their children have no longer that Book to know of their Maker, as such living as if man lives free to his liking, creator of his own rules and ordinances. But this will all have its consequences. A second Babel. The Creator cannot be silenced.”
The farmer turned to him now. “Listen, those legs are gonna heal soon and I know you’ll be going back to your work and I to mine and we’ll be living our normal lives like none of this happened.”
“Just how it is. It’s how we work. You know it.”
“At least try to let me repay you. Somehow.”
The farmer shook his head. “I always thought that to change the course of the universe you have to change one person. The best compensation you can give me is to not forget what I’ve said to you.”
They contemplated the view again.
“So you really think it?” the worker asked.
“That the world’s about to end?”
The farmer replied with a sad, solemn smile.
When the doctor had removed the other cast and he was strong enough to move around by himself Pete drove him back to his apartment in the city. The want and inactivity got to him and he was running out of funds fast so weeks later he’d return to the station just as the farmer said. The other employees acted as if they’d forgotten what they’d done to him and treated him like he’d just gone on some vacation. The youth who had abandoned him in the forest no longer worked with them.
He entered the office trailer to report to work and the foreigner looked up at him from behind a curtain of smoke emanating from the cigarette on tray on his desk. He grinned.
“Well I’m glad to see you come back.”
“I needed the work, sir.”
“And not a single grudge? Remarkable.”
“I didn’t say that.”
The foreigner laughed. “Ah. And yet you’ve come back.”
“Didn’t have another option.”
“Indeed.” He tapped the ash from his cigarette. “And so. That’s how it is isn’t it. At the end of the day it’s all about coming home with food on your plate. The reason why you come back here. The reason why I left you that day. Just business. The universal story of us all. ”
The foreigner smoked his cigarette and neither spoke. At last the foreigner looked at his watch.
“Well. Better get to work then you and I.”
The worker nodded and turned and walked to the door and then stopped. He turned to face the foreigner.
“What about the farmer?”
“What happened to him?”
“Ah.” The foreigner grinned and the cigarette smoke poured out of his nostrils. “He refused to move out. Stubborn as they come.”
The worker swallowed. “And?”
“We gave him an extension. Another week to get to his senses.”
The worker sighed and smiled. “Maybe this time he’ll move out.”
“Oh. This time I’m sure of it.”
“Yes. We sent him a little message.”
The worker stared at him blankly.
“Did you know he had a son?” the foreigner asked.
“Well he. He served for us as both messenger and message.” The foreigner laughed at this. The worker gave him the same blank stare. The foreigner put his index and middle finger to his temple in the form of a pistol and then he flicked it up. “Crystal clear, I should think.”
The worker’s jaw dropped. “Oh God. No.”
The foreigner tapped the remaining ash off the cigarette butt onto his tray with his forefinger. A guillotine in miniature. He pressed the stub on the tray and it stuck out like all other stubs around it brown and gone stale. He took another cigarette from his pack and then lit it.
“You goddamn,” the worker said. “No. He hasn’t done nothing.” He put his hands into his hair and sobbed.
The foreigner exhaled some smoke and looked at his watch again and swiveled his chair away from him and resumed with the paperwork on his desk. He waved his hand to signal him away.
“Aw, come now. Get back to work and don’t worry about it so. If it’ll help you, consider that he is just one more man.”