by Will Kaufman
She cares for the world's cemetery: this land covered in soft grass, made gray by the ranks of headstones, each bearing the beady lens of a motion detector and a dark but waiting screen. Somewhere, there is a wall. Somewhere, beyond the rolling hills and endless graves, she knows there is a wall.
Right now, Emeline needs a discreet place to vomit, out of sight of the temporary caretakers' encampment. The headstones click on and off as she passes, disturbing their simple eyes. When she does stop to retch on the frosty grass at the foot of a monument, she's subjected to its message.
"Who's going to see this?" says an old man, shaking. A lock of thin, white comb-over sways on his scalp. Perry James Ventner, 2166 – 2280, Husband, Father. "You? You going to come watch this?"
"What about your grandkids?" says the voice of the man holding the camera, "Their kids?"
"They won't care. Some man they never knew. Some old bones."
"Please," says the cameraman.
The old man sighs and looks out through the screen. "Be lucky." His gaze drifts down into his lap. "There."
And the tape loops back. "Who's going to see this?"
Emeline leaves the grave, walks on unsteady legs back towards the camp, trying to spit out the taste of bile. She knows she could stop at nearly any other grave to hear some message of hope or inspiration or love, something to cleanse her of the old man's sadness. Washing the dust and bird shit off the graves every day, she's normally bathed in an upwelling of deathbed kindness and care, lilting singsong voices cataloguing their joys.
The voices she grew up with. The voices of her past.
So she stops, but when the screen set in this stone warms to life, it fills with video of an infant trying to crawl, a parent's applause and encouragement. She checks the dates; the grave of a child. Emeline hurries on.
She can feel the cemetery trying to speak.
• • •
The camp sits in a lot to the side of one of the cemetery's roads. There's a latrine in the center of the lot, a cinderblock building, austere and humble amidst the resting places. The camp's trailers are arrayed in a circle, radiating outwards from the bathroom like petals.
The manager is already awake, hoisting the flag up the portable flagpole outside of his trailer. Emeline tries to walk past him unnoticed, cursing the scuff of her shoes on the paving.
He calls out, "Good morning, Emeline. Why are you out of bed so early?"
"Just walking," she mutters.
The manager raises an eyebrow and Emeline swallows. "I mean," she says, "Good morning. I was just taking a walk, sir."
"You don't need to be so official with me," he says, wiping his hands on his handkerchief. "You look pale, you getting sick?"
"I'm fine. Alan."
The manager favors Emeline with a smile.
She crosses her arms over her stomach and tries to remember her place. "I'm feeling just fine, Alan. How are you?"
"Glad to have work," he says. He reaches out to pat Emeline's cheek. "And people to work like I tell them." She stiffens as though his hand were ice cold instead of warm and dry.
She says, "I have to get breakfast ready for Tony. Good morning, Alan."
"I'll see you at the morning meeting," says the manager.
Walking away, sure the manager is watching her go, Emeline licks the inside of her cheek, which still tastes of gall, and forces herself not to spit.
• • •
In their small trailer, Emeline's husband pours egg from a carton into plastic molds. The microwave hums and the trailer smells of bacon.
"You don't have to do that," she says, "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," says Tony, "I don't mind." The microwave dings and Tony pops the door, retrieves the bacon, puts in the eggs. Emeline has to turn away from her husband, his willingness to do the work that's hers under the company's official marriage contract. She looks instead at the fake wood paneling, where it's twisted into a knot the shape of a sideways eye or mouth.
She says, "I was just taking a walk. Before my mother wakes up."
"You're entitled to a walk," Tony says, "I'll make you a cup of coffee."
Guilt feels like a condition born into — like breathing or temptation — and Emeline is always a little surprised when something adds to it.
Emeline says, "I'll see if Mother wants breakfast."
In trailers this size, there's only pretending to be in another room. Emeline's mother lives behind a curtain, in a space filled with a half-sized mattress with cushions glued to the walls in case the bed has to be used as a couch. Which it is, all day. Emeline's mother isn't well enough to leave the trailer unattended.
"Slut," says Emeline's mother, "Whore."
"Good morning, Mother. Are you hungry?"
"Whore!" The old woman clenches her fists, her swollen knuckles the only place the skin is taut on her wrinkled body.
"Mother," Emeline reaches out for her mother's hand, to soothe. She knows her mother must eat, she knows her mother must be coaxed to take the food. The old woman slaps away her hand and then recoils from the contact, pushing herself back into the corner.
"Don't touch me! Don't touch me!" She screams it, "Don't touch me! Don't touch me! Don't touch me!" locked, repeating. Sometimes in the course of a day's work they find a headstone that won't shut off, just plays its message over and over no matter if there are people there to witness or not. Policy is to get the manager. He deactivates the grave, tags it for repair. For a day, a week maybe, the stone is just a stone, silent. "Don't touch me!"
In the kitchen, Tony has the food on plates, coffee in cups, Mother's screams still piercing loud.
"I'm not very hungry," says Emeline.
"You should eat," says her husband, "you know how you hate the lunches they provide. You need to keep your strength up. If we want…if you want to get — "
Emeline says, "We'll be late for the morning meeting."
• • •
They gather around the flagpole in their work clothes, girls too young or women too pregnant to work tend the smaller children, keep them from running to bother their parents. The whole muttering society, they stamp their feet and greet their neighbors, their fellows. The whole camp smells of eggs and coffee. Emeline keeps her eyes low, trying hard not to see Mary in the crowd. Mary with her brown hair and white, white skin. Her green eyes, green eyes.
The manager stands on his trailer's steps and clears his throat. Into the new silence he says, "What a great morning, isn't this a great morning?"
The society agrees. Yes, yes it is a great morning.
"And it's great to see everybody on time, ready to work. My momma used to say a prayer, I don't remember much of it, but there was this part about a place from where 'pain and sorrow and sighing have fled away.' Well, I think that place is here. Don't you?"
Yes, says the society, yes, it must be.
"Yes it is, so don't let me catch you sighing. You've got work, and that's more than can be said for so many of the poor souls stuck out in the world. Today we're working in North Three, East Two-Hundred and Forty. Expect a lot of dead vermin; the area was just poisoned for rats. The women will be cleaning those up. Men, make sure to bring your shovels. We'll be doing some exhumations."
• • •
At the last moment before the women's truck pulls away from the camp, Mary climbs up into the bed to wedge herself in next to Emeline. They don't make eye contact, don't greet each other like everyone else — no good morning, no talk of children or home or camp gossip — they press against each other as the truck bed shudders and hums beneath them.
The truck mounts a rise and Emeline looks out over the cemetery, grave markers stretching to the horizon, the small spikes of monuments, the blunt head of a stone cross or angel. In the far distance, the effect becomes like static on a broken screen, flecks of grey and white, the sun picking up distant edges. She thinks how impossible escape seems. She hasn't seen the outer wall of the cemetery since she was a girl, learning to clean in the rows next to her mother.
Her mother used to say, "We're lucky to work," and, "One day you'll be teaching your own daughter to do this."
The truck stops and the women all climb down, pulling on gloves and picking up buckets. Mary leans in close and whispers, "I wasn't able to sleep last night. Just one more day."
It was a whisper that started it all. Something sympathetic hushed over the scrape of scrub-brushes after the manager had come by and laid his hand on Emeline's bottom. Mary's lips brushed her ear and they were soft and their softness seemed to flow from Emeline's ear over her cheek and even though she was looking at the stone, looking at the video of an old woman saying she loved her and was in a better place, don't be sad, Emeline was seeing Mary's green eyes and she thought what it would be like to kiss her pale lips and a charge went off in Emeline's chest and she thought, why was she nervous? But it wasn't nervous like when she stood in front of everyone for her signing and the manager put a pen in her hand.
"This," he told her, "says you agree to work for the Cemetery Corporation, and only the Cemetery Corporation. Initial here."
Her mother smiled, and Emeline did as she was told.
"And this says you agree to live in the habitation provided by the Cemetery Corporation. Initial here."
A compatible husband, picked by the company. Her children, raised in the cemetery until they were old enough to sign or leave. A burial in the worker's section, with a three-minute video tribute, recorded and edited by a representative of the Cemetery Corporation. She initialed, yes. She accepted everything, she accepted the penalties, whatever penalties were deemed appropriate should she break her contract.
She'd never heard of anyone breaking their contract, and she did not know what the penalities might be. Emeline imagined being trapped in a video screen for all eternity, waiting in darkness for someone to wander close enough.
No, this wasn't like how Emeline's heart shook and her stomach clenched when she signed for her life with the manager's pen. No, Mary's lips made Emeline nervous like when she was sixteen and the first bird she'd ever seen landed next to her on a headstone, and cocked its head, and looked about, and wiped its beak on its red breast, and she tried so hard not to move so she wouldn't scare it away, this thing, that she knew could simply fly.
Now, the warmth of Mary's breath still on her ear, Emeline puts a hand on her stomach and tries to focus on the bucket she'll be filling with rat corpses.
• • •
Emeline sits next to her half-full bucket, knees clutched to her chest, rocking back and forth. On the screen in front of her a young woman, blond hair explosively bright, says, "I'm recording this now because this is how I want to be remembered. Just think, you know more about what's going to happen than I do." She laughs and her teeth are white and straight. Thessaly Blank, 2230 – 2272, Beloved aunt and sister. "Thank you for coming, thank you for being a part of my life and remembering me. Could you ever have imagined me being this young? I love you, and I can't wait to meet you."
After they finish cleaning North Three, East Two-Hundred and Forty, the camp will be sent southwest to replace burned out screens. This is the closest they'll get to the edge of the cemetery for who knows how long. Tomorrow, everyone will pack up the camp, and in all that confusion, no one will notice two women slipping away. Emeline dries her eyes and looks to the east, but she can't see the wall, just the plantation-straight rows of graves.
Behind her, the hunched backs of the other women bob low and small between the stones. The young blond says, "Thank you," and she says, "I can't wait." Emeline takes a step forward, eastward, the recording clicks off. Another step forward and she trips the next memorial, the screen lights up with an old woman caught by a vicious fit of coughing. Emeline recoils into the silent space between the graves, where she stands, as though trapped, or as though waiting, like the graves. Then the blond says, "I'm recording this now," and Emeline feels a hand on her shoulder.
The manager says, low and throaty and close to her hair, "You won't find any rats if you don't keep your eyes on the ground."
She says, "Sorry, sir."
"Alan," she says, "I'll get back to work."
He says, "Don't worry about that, it's almost time for lunch."
She asks, "Don't you have to oversee the exhumations?" She wants him not to be there, touching her, making the blond say, "I love you," and "you know more about what's going to happen than I do."
He says, "I told them what to do, and they'll do as they're told."
"If they don't?"
"Your husband's real good at doing what I say. I bet if I told him to watch — "
"No," says Emeline, and she knows the manager is smiling.
The dead blond says, "Could you ever have imagined?"
He takes a handful of Emeline's hair. "All my life no one's ever said no." He pulls her head back, makes her show her throat. "Maybe I'll make you say no, just to see what it sounds like."
• • •
In the afternoon, Mary works her way over to Emeline and pulls her down to sit, backs to a stone, muffling its quavering voice, "And the dogs gave me so much joy, Scooter, Jo, they had so much love in them, Murphy, Chip." Julianne McCormack, 2199 – 2276, Blessed are the meek.
Emeline doesn't want to be touched right now, but lets Mary hold her hand.
Mary says, "Let's go now."
"They'd know we were missing when we weren't on the truck."
"I know, I didn't really mean it. I'm just excited," says Mary, "We could leave tonight."
"We should be working. We'll get in trouble."
"Maybe we should go tonight," says Mary, "What if we finish the work early? Miss our chance to get away?"
Emeline laughs, hollow and bitter. "We're not even working now, how could we finish early?"
Mary says, "Laugh if you want. I won't live like this any longer. If we don't get out I'm going to tell everyone. I'd rather risk the penalties for violating my contract than live like this."
"You don't mean that."
Mary says, "I'm doing this for both of us. I can't take this anymore, and you shouldn't have to either. Don't you want to go?" Her tone changes, she's painting a picture. "We could have a house, a real one like all these people had," she waves her hand at the cemetery, "We could have a garden. And no more management. Don't you want that?"
"Yes," says Emeline, "Of course."
"I'm sorry I said I would tell. I just, I want you all to myself. Isn't that what you want?"
"Of course," says Emeline.
Mary rests her head on Emeline's shoulder and murmurs, "Tell me. Promise you want me."
"Maybe we could have our own contract," says Mary. "A secret contract, to be each other's, always."
• • •
The women arrive back at the camp before the men. They load the bucketsful of rats into a disposal truck and then trudge to their trailers to wash up and start dinner. Emeline finds her mother standing on the paving in front of the open door of their trailer, staring at the cinderblock lavatory. Emeline takes her gently by the elbow.
"I was looking for the coffee," says the old woman, "I wanted a cup."
"It's okay," says Emeline, "Come inside, I'll fix you some."
Her mother looks at her and laughs. A small laugh. A simple, pure thing. "You always want to be the grownup, don't you? You're too young for coffee, and too young to work the kettle."
"Mom," says Emeline, and she pulls her mother close to hug her.
It's like pulling a fuse. Emeline's mother turns, eyes wide, teeth barred. "Let go of me! Whore! Slut!" Her voice is sharp and loud. Other women on their way back to their trailers stop and watch.
Emeline tries to take her mother's arm again, the old woman claws at her hand. "Don't touch me!" The eyes on her make Emeline burn, make her shake. She can feel a cold sweat pushing at the day's grime on her skin. She seizes her mother's arm, the bone thin beneath the skin, the old woman shrills, "Whore! Whore! Whore whore whore whore!"
Emeline's only witness, this shrieking wreck.
The old woman's shoes scuff at the pavement, she falls and Emeline drags her back to her feet, pushes her, stumbling, up the steps of the trailer, shoves her through the curtain and down onto the mattress where the old woman cowers back into a corner and begins to keen, a long animal cry. Her knees are scraped, blood beginning to soak shiny through her stockings.
And Emeline feels very heavy, all the strength gone. Her hand is covered in long red welts, her mother's claw marks. Her chest constricts, a labor to breathe. Long shuddering gasps. She cries, her face blank, uncluttered, lips slack, tears pouring from wide eyes.
• • •
Tony comes in from the showers, wet hair flat on his head, a streak of brown dirt still clinging to his neck just below his ear. Emeline has their dinners, hot from the microwave, set out on the table. She puts on her bright face and says, "How did the exhumations go?"
He says, "Fine," and he blushes, even his chest taking color.
"We tipped over one of the coffins, trying to get it into the truck. The bones fell out. Everybody was laughing."
"That's awful," says Emeline, "Why would they laugh?"
He says, "The bones fell out. And a penis."
"It was plastic, a fake one. I shouldn't tell you." Tony starts to look sunburned, his eyes locked on the table. "The other men wouldn't have told their wives. It's not right."
"It's fine," says Emeline. She takes a dishtowel and wipes the streak of dirt from her husband's neck. "You're not like the other men. That's why I love you."
"Oh. Thank you. I mean, I love you, too."
"Eat your dinner. You must be hungry."
• • •
"He was a father," says Tony, in the dark of their bedroom.
"Who," murmurs Emeline.
"The man with the fake thing. He was a father. We dug him up. And his son. They died the same day, it said so on their stones.
"Their videos were playing the whole time we were digging. They were the same. Three segments, the father and a woman holding a baby. The father holding a little boy and helping him walk. Then the father throwing a ball and the kid swinging at it with a bat.
"I was so mad when they laughed at him. And sad. And I laughed with them."
Emeline lies, suddenly awake, and watches the rise and fall of the shadow of her husband's chest. In the quiet, she can hear her mother's soft snores.
Tony says, "Have you ever seen the workers' section of the cemetery?"
"No," she says, "I've seen all the same things you've seen. Whatever the camp's seen."
Outside, the sprinklers kick on with a sputter and a hiss.
"It's just," says Tony, "No one's come to make a video of your mother. Have they?"
• • •
She listens to her husband snore; she listens to her mother snore. She tries to imagine her future, out in the world she's heard about, a bedroom up a tall building, up in the clouds, and people all around, sweating and coughing and laughing and saying something new every day. They must have jobs, those people. They must have had jobs, the new bodies that arrive in the cemetery. She'll have work, and food, and Mary.
And in the morning, Emeline will get sick and Mary will ask what's wrong and she'll say nothing, nothing's wrong. Mary will say promise me, promise me nothing's wrong, sign this secret contract that says nothing's ever wrong.
And Emeline's mother will die, probably in this trailer, probably with Tony caring for her. And if her mother remembers that she had a daughter, and asks to see her daughter, what will Tony say?
And what if there's no door? And what if there's nothing beyond the wall, just an end, an edge overhanging night?
Emeline's clutching her stomach, her fingernails digging into the skin, the loam over that little, buried life, like she could dig it up, tear it loose, free it.
Emeline tries to imagine her future. Then she slips out of bed and packs her bag, holding her breath whenever Tony's snores catch in his throat and he moans and rolls over. She kisses him softly on his forehead and sneaks to her mother's bed, who she dare not disturb, though she kisses her fingertips and touches them to her mother's pillow, and Emeline slips out into the camp. Her heart rumbles and screams in her ears so heavy and loud it deafens her, makes her afraid she will not hear pursuers until they come upon her.
Past the bare flag-pole, past Mary's trailer and the priest's trailer, into the cemetery, she runs on the balls of her feet. She stumbles, dizzied, she's bounding between the rows, she loses sight of the ground and then she's embracing it, her palms stinging, the wind blown from her. The screen she's fallen in front of warms and flickers.
"I want to show you something," a young man with no hair, on his head, no eyebrows to shelter the blue eyes in his thin face, looks into a camera held at arm's length, wavering in his hand. Harlan Thomas, 2051 – 2090, The bravest man we knew. "I want to show you the view out my window. I want to show you the world outside."
The camera spins, past a couch and lamp, the image flooding with light as the window comes into frame, fills up the screen. Before the image can resolve, Emeline closes her eyes tight.
"Look at that, look at that amazing world. I want you to see this world I'm lucky enough to live in."
She's holding hear breath, eyes squeezed shut so hard lights dance in the darkness, little trails of red and blue.
"Isn't that amazing," breathes the grave. "Just look."
She crawls, feeling the way, hands shaking, she crawls. Behind her the tape loops back and the man says, "I want to show you something." She crawls until it clicks off.
Emeline stands up and walks towards the wall, ignoring the graves as they murmur and coo.
Copyright © 2013 by Will Kaufman