Dirt for a Sky
The Etoi family lay
dead before me. Seven bodies spread out on the cold floor of their home, each
with a smile frozen to their faces. It was a cruel choice to make. Their Gas
was gone, and the coldest night in three years was upon them. If they didn’t
kindle a fire, their destiny was a slow and frigid death. But if they built a
fire for warmth, they had a chance to survive the night, unless carbon monoxide
lulled them to sleep first.
I strapped on my Gas mask, in part to keep the filth in the air from reaching my lungs and in part because I needed to think. I pressed the switch and sweet salvation rushed into my lungs, easing my body, dilating my pupils. If they needed somewhere to stay the night, why didn’t they just come over? We aren’t rich either, but we could have survived this mess. Together.
I walked over to Robbert, and stared at his closed eyes, searching for answers. We worked the same job in the Factory. We were friends, good ones too. Why did you go do something so stupid? He had a habit of drinking a bit too much after work, wondering the forbidden parts of the Factory, watching things he wasn’t meant to. But I never suspected him to do something like this.
The Etoi family was starting to be moved to the death wagons. My cowardly neighbors moved first to fetch the older people of the dead. I walked to his youngest, six months old, and lifted him up, hoping for a heartbeat, a shallow breath, red lips full of warmth, but all I got was a frozen corpse. I carried him to the funeral wagons.
Dinner was silent that night. We ate a stew of meat and potatoes; the meat came from a sheep that had dirt in her stomach, and a left lung as black as dirt. It was hard to find much better these days. My wife gave me a glance before she started to eat, her away of telling me that we need to talk. The boys knew something was not right and kept silent through out meal, Tim tried to keep his caught as silent as possible. He was only five, if he didn’t get some better Gas he might not survive the year. Lary, the oldest boy at twelve, and Wilfred who was two weeks away from celebrating his ninth birthday ate in perfect silence. Their utensil never even made a sound on their plates. We were one short; Dianna hadn’t come home for a few days now. She wanted to get out of this place, and we couldn’t blame her. It’s just that there was no where to go.
I signaled the meal’s end when I put down my fork, and started to carry my plate to the kitchen. The boys quietly scattered, and my wife stared at me. She had sharp dark eyes, sharp enough to pierce steel walls if her resolve was strong. Tonight, her resolve was a diamond plated chainsaw.
“I don’t want you to be around Nathen anymore. Avoid him at work, and don’t travel with him to home, nor fro.” She also wasted no breath on being subtle.
“We work the same machine-“
“I don’t care! Find a different shift to work! Just stay away.”
I took a moment to think, trying to swallow the filth
gathering in my trachea into my stomach and not my lungs. “Nothing is going to happen.”
Her voice dropped into a whisper, she started shaking. “They’re going to kill you.”
There was no question
of who “They” were. “I’m not going to die.”
She came closer, wrapped her hands around my chest. “They are,” she whispered mournfully. “Three years ago, a fool got lost in the Factory”, she placed a mocking emphasis on “got lost”. “Three weeks later, the weather became as cold, maybe even colder than it is now. Then that fool died.” She gripped hold of me tighter. “That fool had a few friends, all working the same machine.” She paused, shaking as willow would in the wind it had no control over. “They all died.”
My wife took my gas
mask and placed it on her mouth, pressed the switch, and took a deep breath.
She stopped shaking, and rested her head on my chest. “During that winter,
“Of idiocy! He was walking outside during a blizzard.”
“The blizzard was a cover. He was drugged. I dressed his body for his funeral, I know. He had faint finger marks around his neck and wrists. There was a clumsy hole in his fore arm.”
She wasn’t making sense. “No man can control the weather.”
“The same thing happened ten years ago.” Her voice was a dead whisper.
It did. Some fool wondered around the Factory and died with his work buddies some weeks later. I had tried not to think about it. A shiver ran down my back, and I hugged her tight.
I worked in the Sixth Splitting Unit. My job was simple. Wait for the cleaned water from the nearby river to come through the entrance valve into a glass coated giant pot, and add coal to the fire beneath it until the water was steaming. When it reached hundred degrees Celsius, we would run up stairs and manually lower two giant rods of metal into the pot, and then run a wire between the two. Near those rods, gasses would form, rise up into the collection terminals, and the job would be transferred over to the secondary cleaning units. Once the pot becomes two-thirds empty, we would repeat the whole thing again.
My job was simple, but it was hell. Not because the grueling amount of labor I did in a ten hour shift seven times of week, nor because of the temperature that left you wet and dehydrated half an hours work into the day, nor because the Factory forced you to bring your own Gas to work. It was hell because the very thing you worked for, the only thing you ever needed was produced right in front of your eyes, and you couldn’t touch it. You couldn’t take it. It just floated up into the collection tube, reminding you of how impossible your life is here.
I tried to leave my job before Nathen caught up with me, and I failed. He clasped me on the back, and we exchanged a few words of Rob’s death. All three of us were good friends, and it caught us both of guard that Rob was to die first. Nate should have been next in line. He was hardly making enough to provide Gas to his whole family. Rather than seeing his family wither away, he decided on the Eskimo death. Where he would walk into all of this filth without even a mask on, and all he earned would be left for his family. Recently he started getting worse. He tried to hide it, but I sometimes spotted blood in his pygmy.
“Listen, I got something to show you.” He reached into his coat and produced a photograph. “This here is a picture of that hill, two hundred years ago. Wow, right.”
I compared the two. Where the picture was full of grass, and a tree that claimed the top of the hill, my view only saw dirt, and the rusted bars of a grave. “Someone changed the picture. The sky isn’t blue.”
“But it was. A long time ago it was.”
“Long enough for it to have never mattered.”
He chuckled, but that mirth was quick to turn to a wheezing torture to the ear. He wasn’t going to outlive Rob by much. “One day, I would like too see that blue for myself. It looks almost infinite on this paper.”
I got lost in the picture for a moment. Lost in its light off camera that seemed to give rise to the shadows in the grass. Lost in the tree that was about to be cradled in the wind. “Where did you get this?” If Nate was right about this picture, then the Factory would never let it be seen.
“The Reader showed it to me. I asked if I can show it to my boy, and he said that I can show it to anyone I’d want to. Wait till Jon sees it, it’ll make him happy. That boy has lungs. And I mean LUNGS! He can-”
I tuned him out, and made a decision to visit the Reader, he lived close by on the route to home anyway. I bid my adieu to Nate, shook his hand, wished him and his family well, after all this might be the last time I see him alive, and turned into the windy path towards the Reader’s residence. A little while later, the wind brought sounds of Nate coughing out one of his lungs.
The Reader was a nickname that people who liked him came to call him. Those who didn’t, called him Gravedigger, those who hated his father called him The Lich’s Bastard. He was the local undertaker, who was fond of ancient books. He also who had a strange luck of having things fall straight into his liking, though he seldom showed it.
When I arrived at his door step, my Gas tank was running on low, and the dreaded frigid wind kick up a tantrum. Fortunately for me, the Reader wasn’t entertaining the newly mournful and welcomed me into his home. The undertaker’s house was a virtual Gas tank. You didn’t need to wear your mask in his house; there is no filth, no mal air. Only the cleanest air anyone can possibly get their hands on. He offered me tea and biscuits, of which I only accepted the tea.
The reader poured the tea into two porcelain cups shaped like white flowers, placing one in front of me before taking one himself. He wiped the steam off his circular glasses, and sat in his lavish chair. “Nasty winds we’re getting, eh? Came to arrange things for ol’ Rob?”
The death arrangements should fall to his last remaining brother. “No, I came to ask of the picture you have given Nate.”
“I apologize.” The Reader waved of his last question, and placed his tea down without taking a sip. “I just taught, with you being the closest person to Rob still alive and well, that you would be doing the honors. I’ve even prepared a special package for you. Seven services for the price of five. Five very cheap ones.”
Rob’s last brother was ill and childless. So comes the end of his house. “Where did you get that photograph?” And the nerve to speak of the dead as simple transactions.
“It came to my possession, a few years back. Four or three, I think. A man by the name of Luke gave it to me.”
“Where would this Luke be?”
“Dead, I’m afraid.” The Reader said it without any emotion attached to it. “He used it to pay for his funeral. I liked the picture so much I gave him a free funeral for his entire family.”
A payment in advance for a funeral, not many people are that hopeless here. “He died, but how?”
“Poor fellow froze to death, with his wife and his only son. It was a cold winter and he couldn’t pay for the heating.” He gave a moment of silence before leaning closer to me. The light hit him at an angle, illuminating his glasses. “But here’s the thing, see. Luke had very long hair, probably must have taken him a few years to grow it out. And you might not know this but, hair is like a library of bodily intake, it stores everything. Luke’s hair had drugs.”
I tried not to change
my glance, tried not to blink, tried not to give any indication that I knew I
was walking into a trap. “So Luke blew his money on drugs, and couldn’t pay for
the heat. Unfortunate.”
The Reader didn‘t flinch, didn‘t avert his gaze for a second. His eyes were set for my skull. “Only the root of his hair had the drugs. I say the intake happen four hours before death. Everything else was clean.”
The quickest way out was the window, the tea was still hot.
“Strange thing is, that pattern repeated itself in his wife and son.” The Reader leaned back into his lavish chair.
Tell me Reader, are you a Factory man, or a rebel? “What could have he done to deserve such wrath?”
The Reader shrugged. “Some say he was in debt, others in an affair, all call him a fool.” He took another moment’s pause. “A rumor once said he walked into something he was never meant to, pass a dingy hallway in B-17 of the production unit. Oh, what would I do to know what he saw in there? Assuming the rumor is true of course.”
“Of course. Wondering that deep would be suicidal. Dangerous things rumors are, and only fools take them for truth.”
He smiled. “My father once said that even the wildest rumor has a grain of truth in it.”
It was my time to return the smile. “My own once said never to trust a Lich.” Father also said we should put his family to the flaming stake. “I must be off now, I have to talk to Rob’s brother of his funeral, and to my own wife of it as well.” I rose and noticed the full tea cup by his side, and counted my blessings for not drinking mines.
The Reader escorted me to his door, all the while giving estimates for Rob’s funeral. Whatever he wanted to say to me, he had already said, he was just covering up any other hidden motives with a veil of business. Before strapping on my Gas mask to go outside, I looked him in the eye and asked: “Was the sky ever blue?”
“Yes”, spoke the Gravedigger. “And it caught many in its daydreams.”
I did not go straight home. Wrapping my jacket around my face, trying to ward any filth from flying into my face, I braved the winds and walked to the hill in the picture. Once there, the windstorm quelled, and all that was left was a void of coldness. My mask meter was blinking to indicate an almost empty tank, but I didn’t care. I scanned the grey and brown sky, attempting to locate the source of light that teased my brain in Nate’s picture. For an hour I stood, and observed the skies, but I never found the source.
When my Gas depleted itself in my lungs, and I had to remove the mask or risk asphyxiation, only then did I forfeit my search. As I turned for home, I saw Lary, on the hill’s zenith, right on the spot where the tree had once had grown. He had his mask on him, but it wasn’t strapped on. He’s too young for the Eskimo death.
“Mother told me get you. There were people from the Factory. Correction Officers, the strong kind. They were at our home. Looking. For you.”
Only then did I notice his short breaths and puddles of water on the sides of his eyes. He was scared, he was trying not to show it. I walked to him, kneeled and closed his mask, turning the switch on. “Never take this off.”
He nodded. The Factory will break him, but he’ll be alive.
“Go home now.” I wrapped my hands around his back and pressed his face against my chest. He’ll live, he’ll have to live. In a world better than this one here. “Tell you mother to take you three and go your Aunt’s house. Bring Dianna with you too, if you find her.” Tristiana, my sister in law, had three full grown strong sons in her house, the Correction Officers wouldn’t trod there too boldly.
“Then tell her to get all her brothers over . . . for a family dinner.” That would give them all together eleven strong bodies, and another eight of wives and children. “Invite anyone you see. Anyone. Friend, beggar, stranger, lunatic. Tell them that the invite is in my name.”
“Dad”, came the weak whisper from my son’s mouth. “Are you going to be okay?”
I held him out at arm’s length and looked him straight into his eyes. Into his sharp dark eyes that he inherited from his mother, and I lied. “Of course I am. I just have to finish some work tonight. But, in the meantime, I want you to be safe. All of you.” If I don’t come back, you’re going have to take care of everyone. One day, you’re going have to take care of your own family. One day, you’re going to have to take care of this entire city. “Go now, and keep everyone safe. I’m proud of you.”
“Mother told me to get you.” His hands held a grip on my sleeves. “I can’t leave without you.”
“Go now, son. I’ll be there soon.” Again, I lied.
“See you soon then” Lary hesitated, slowly releasing
his hold on my sleeve. He allowed his hand to fall almost lifeless to his side,
walked a few steps backwards, then turned around and started running back home.
I watched him, running of into the distance. I watched his young and feeble
back fade into the smog, all the time wondering if I placed a too heavy of a
burden on it. On him. He’ll have to become strong.
Only once his silhouette had vanished into the distant fog, did I turn to face the Factory. It stood where it always stood, in the center of the city, a giant obelisk glowing red from heat and activity. I always thought I was going to die by asphyxiation. Steel hemispheres the size of large houses rested in the Factory’s shadow. They were inhabited by those who owned the Factory, those who never had to worry about buying Gas, those who were always healthy. I never believed I would be able to make a difference in this world, except perhaps keep a group of five alive. From the ground I picked up a rusted steel spike the size of my hand. That changed tonight. I gave the rusted spike a practice swing, and began walking to the Factory. It will have to do. I won’t die of asphyxiation, I will leave this place better for the next generation, I won’t cower from the Factory.