2020_07_16

A Day in Hell

The sweltering heat filled his brain and he could think of nothing else. When he could muster forth a thought it was

"Why did they send me to this godawful place?"

and he repeated it over and over again, sometimes aloud. All morning he dragged the sacks from the bank where he’d helped the men unload them from the boat the day before. He dragged them up the steep hill and across the field to the compound. Instructions had come through that he’d need to have the bags up there by evening. All of them. He didn’t even know if it was possible, but he kept on dragging bag after bag, only stopping occasionally to take a few sips of water from a canteen sitting in the shade of the building. By mid afternoon he was sure it wasn’t possible. The heat and humidity were at their worst and moisture stuck to his skin like a leach. He kept dragging bag after bag. At some point the thought occurred to him, damnit, I should have a damned wheelbarrow! But he knew every inch of the compound by now. There was none available. Well then they should have provided him with one! These thoughts broiled in his overheated brain as he dragged yet another bag up the steep muddy hill. The hill was becoming slicker with each trip he made, but the enormous pile on the shore of the river seemed only a little smaller than when he had started. His cursing increased in volume and fervor step by step.

"Damn them for sending me to this boiling swamp. Damn them, damn them, damn them!"

The words came out in a fervent hiss, yet were so separate from what he was doing that he hardly noticed them himself. Finally he took a small break in the relatively cool interior of the compound as he filled his canteen. He ran his hands and then face under cool water, then towelled himself dry. Then he was back at it. Still quite a few sacks to move.

It happened in the early evening. He was back to the shore, about to lift another sack, when he paused and listened. From down river, around the bend he heard it, carrying through the inert, swampy air. A sweet feminine voice, singing, from what he could tell. At first he had thought it was a bird. But no, that was a human voice for certain. His hands let go of the sack and he straightened. Then in an instant he was off down the bank of the river, running wildly towards the silky notes that still miraculously lofted on the hot, dead air. Thoughts flashed through his previously numbed mind as he ran. How long had it had been since he’d spoken to anyone? Yes there were the men on the boat yesterday, but they had said hardly a word, and didn’t count. No, besides them he hadn’t seen or spoken to another person in months and months. He hadn’t so much as seen a woman in a over a year for that matter. The thought caused a small pang of grief and he ran on. Around the corner of the river he could hear the voice much more clearly. Then he could see the source. It was indeed a woman and she was perched on the rock another twenty yards down the stream. She had her back to him and hadn’t heard him, for she continued to sing gaily. She must, he thought, have just done bathing, for his eyes showed that she was naked on the rock, and was combing her hair. He slowed to a walk now and continued towards her. He didn’t want to spook the only chance at company he’d had in months. But he didn’t, as he should have, turn back out of concern for her modestly. He needed, badly, to speak to another living creature. Finally when he was pretty close he decided he had better announce himself.

"Excuse me, ma’am?"

He was half expecting her to shriek, turn around, see him, and bolt away in surprise. What happened instead surprised him even more. She did not seem to have heard him at all; she continued to sing and to comb.

"Ma’am?" he ventured again after waiting a moment, moving closer as he did. Again no response. He walked around the side of her and to her front. Then he gasped and involuntarily stepped back. At that point the singing, which had been coming from a type of animatronic doll or mannequin, ceased. In it’s place a brusque male voice came over a burst of static.

"Comrade Smith, you have failed in your duties. You will be assigned to this station for another six months. Some time in these next six months, at a time and in a manner of our choosing, you will be tested again. Be sure not to fail again this time. Our patience is wearing thin. Now return to your duties at once!"

Nearly at the first word from the mannequin he had collapsed there on the bank and begun to wail. Another six months of this hellhole! How could they do it? But even as he wailed and cursed, he listened attentively to the message from the mannequin. Soon after it had finished speaking he pulled himself together, stood up, and trudged back upstream to the pile of sacks, a look which had gone beyond resignation into pure numbness deeply embedded on his features. There he grabbed another sack and resumed the probably pointless task of half-carrying, half-dragging them up the hill and across the field to the compound. He finished moving the last sack a little after 3:00 in the morning, though he had no sense of this himself, and crashed exhausted onto his cot, falling asleep still in his well-soiled uniform.