E
Oct/Nov 2012 Fiction

Grave Robbers

by Jerry McGahan


When the Sacred Fatherland Military Academy conducts their field sessions on the northern coast, Damian's class accompanies an army detachment for three weeks. They observe desert training and participate in some of their exercises. The first day, after rigging up their tent washrooms and toilets, the students join the recruits on the firing range where they learn how to sight in, tear down, and clean a rifle. When Damian and two other students demonstrate some talent for marksmanship, they're assigned to a unit of rifleman who train with a variety of sniper rifles and scopes. By the end of the week, Damian's target scores exceed those of half of the recruits. His friend, Mario, calls him Sureshot.

On the first day of the second week—to the dismay of the two academy instructors—the army camp vacates to a stretch of rocky coastline to fish. When the schoolmasters complain about the military merits of fishing, the camp major, a beetlelike hunchback, invites them to stay behind and enjoy the obstacle course. Lips barely moving, he tells them that this batch of recruits posted the highest average time on that course, and for the achievement, they get to hone their survival skills on a beach, provide the cooks with some fresh meat, and have a little fun. With or without your company, he tells them. Or approval. He smiles faintly.

With both it seems, their silence concedes.

On the coastline, recruits and students alike, each issued 30 meters of 15-kilo monofilament and three hooks, spread out along a slab-rock point. Watching, then miming a recruit rig his line, Damian cuts a length from the end and knots it to the hook. He finds a small rock with thick ends and ties it to the end of his line for a sinker. An arm's length above the stone he ties on his snelled hook. As the recruit has done, Damian locates a snail at the waterline, bashes it with a rock, pulls off the bits of shell, and impales the flesh on the hook. Swinging the hook and rock like a bolo, he lets fly. When a loop of line snags a rock, his rig stabs short into the surf. He retrieves his line and loops it before himself, taking care to keep it loose and neat. His second cast carries out as far as the recruit's. Pleased, he draws in his slack and stands, wrist cocked, attentive, holding his line as if he were reading an invisible book, and like the recruit, stares out at the sea with no expression whatsoever. He recognizes the soldier as a member of the sniper unit, one of several men there with whom Damian hadn't ever spoken.

Countering ennui, he locates Mario farther out on the rocky point. After watching the recruit catch two fish—twisting, flattened chrome, the length of his forearm—Damian retrieves his line. The hook is clean. He baits it again, casts, and augers into dormancy. Moments later, he's yanked from a skeptic's stupor. Damian pulls back on the line, but the fish resists, bores away, slicing the line through his finger. Blood leaks off his wrist. He uses both hands. Gradually, the fish stops but resists giving up any line. The recruit rushes over. "You've got a big one there. Get him in."

"He won't come in."

"Are you snagged?"

"No."

"Then pull him in."

"I told you he won't come in."

"Pull harder, hard as you can without breaking the line."

"It's cutting my hand."

"Loop it around."

Damian obeys.

"Now drag him in."

"Quit saying that. He won't come in."

"It must be a big ray." He studies Damian. "You're a city kid."

Damian wonders what it is that tags him from the city. "I can do this myself."

"If you're going to do something, pull him in."

"Why don't you go away?"

"Because I want to see the dumbest fish in the world."

Damian kicks at him, but the recruit skips out of range, laughing. The fish lunges, relents, then lunges again. Damian forgets the recruit, returns to this other presence. The fish's strength awes him, the slow-rising strength of flight, the subsiding of stymied power into a rooted obstinacy. Damian can feel its refusal at resignation, the marshaling of a restrained potency that is in some way respectful, as if asking, requesting its freedom. This big fish will apologize and take its leave now, if that's all right, unconfuse whatever human endeavor it mistakenly interrupted with this mouth and eternal hunger.

"Keep that line tight until you wear him down."

"Get out of here."

"When you start wearing him down, you can draw in a chunk of line after every run."

"Go catch your own fish."

"When he gets to the rocks, you'll have keep him from the bottom, or he'll cut the line."

Damian says nothing.

"Of course, if you wait long enough, he might die of old age."

Damian can feel the wing beats of its undersea flight, an undulant pulse of great sweeping triangles. Before the ray yields, it makes one magisterial lunge for the deep, pulls Damian toward the edge of the rock.

"Give him line, let him run," the recruit allows, eyes widened.

Damian lets some line slip through his good hand, but the ray doesn't go far. After reclaiming what he's lost, Damian labors on working the fish in. Slowly, the ray surrenders the sandy depths and enters the rocky shallows.

"Haul, haul like the devil."

Damian backs onto the rock pulling, rushes forward, winding in the slack. Wrapping the line around his bloody hand, he backs off again, towing the ray toward shore. Beneath the rock, a huge wing breaks the surface and the ray, clearly beaten now, almost turns over in a big roller.

"Ho!" the recruit shouts. "Look at that big bastard. Pull now. Pull." He jumps in, waist deep, leans out into the surf toward the exhausted fish.

Damian moves to one side of the recruit and lowers the line onto the rock, into a notch. He tears sideways, and the line parts. The ray slips back as something blown from the bed of a racing truck and then submerges. The recruit whirls, his mouth a black oval.

"Damn," Damian says.

"No!" the recruit bellows. "What?"

"Gone, gone." Damian stands on the lip of rock and lifts an arm in salute. He watches the rollers coming in, imagines the ray flying beneath, soaring past the rock, over the sand into the deep. Winging into deep's darkness.

"You cut him loose." The recruit clambers out of the water onto the rock, his eyes half-lidded. "On purpose."

"I couldn't stand the idea of you touching him."

"You..."

Damian backs away, picks up a fist-sized rock, and smiles an invitation. Inside a burst of joyous, mad rage billows. Maybe it shows through a fissure, some gleam of dementia, because the recruit hesitates. He looks up the coastline at the other figures dotted out on the point. Something inside folds, and the recruit walks away.

"Haul, haul like the devil," Damian calls after, bitter with disappointment, choked with the molten and useless waste of readiness. Across, the recruit gathers his line and his fish and moves off on down the shoreline.

Blazing, Damian goes back out on the rock's edge, cools there in the sound and mist of surf. He searches the water's endless deforming and reforming, the shaggy, agatey enigma. Wing on, wing on. He can feel in the fish a cold, slow glory of redemption filling, the smooth laminar flow of sunless water pressing over.

The motor-scooter winds down the dune headlands to the rocks and puts an end to the fishing. A boy brings a message about a riot. In minutes, the recruits are in the back of the trucks, the academy students in their bus, all of them jolting back toward camp, which they pass straightaway.

The village edges a serpentine band of green trees and shrubs bordering a dry streambed that meanders across the desert from unseen mountains in the east. Chickens, turkeys, and pigs populate an otherwise empty district. A few clotheslines pop color in the wind. All the people and dogs crowd in a clamor beneath rutted hills five minutes beyond the village. They shout and wave fists at a handful of men standing on a clay platform where the hills rise. Some of the men below wave clubs.

The trucks and bus part the crowd and halt near the bench. Recruits and students move through the shoving and shouting and follow the major to the besieged above. The major whispers momentarily with a bespectacled man in pressed khakis, nods once and turns to face the mob below. "Go home," he calls. "This is the property of the nation. It's not yours to pillage and rob."

"It's not theirs," a man in front calls back. "We live here. They killed two of our sons last night." From a speckling of wadded faces, lifted fists and bats, a growling cry emerges.

"They were robbing the ruins. It's the law. They were the first to shoot."

"Is it the law that these men from the city can rob the gold?"

"They are from the museum and the university. It's not their gold. It belongs to the nation. These people study the ruins and the ancient ones. Grave robbers destroy what they can learn."

"It's not their gold. Do you believe they aren't stealing? Do you believe that they dig it up and give it away?"

"They're hired by the museum. It's their work. You can see the gold in the museum."

"You're a fool then. You don't know what they keep for themselves. These people don't live here. They have no right to this place. We have lived here. These are the ruins of our ancestors, and it's their work, what they left us." The mob rouses, fists rise. Their spokesman goes on: "This isn't the nation's gold or your gold or the museum's gold. This is our town, our land, our cemeteries. These are our ruins, and our gold. Do you want us to put signs up so they can read it?"

The man in khakis steps forward. "These people are not your ancestors anymore than they are mine." He speaks with the courage of one safely protected. "This culture has been dead and gone for a millenium, a thousand years. And nobody who works for me has taken anything."

"What do you know about the people who live here? Have you ever spoken to any of us?" He turns to the one standing alongside. "Alfonso? Has he spoken to you?"

Alfonso shakes his head. "He's spoken to me," a man calls out from behind. "He told me where I couldn't dig a hole to shit in."

Laughter. Another calls, "We've left him gifts in other holes."

A woman yells, "These mistis want to know about the ancient ones, but they won't even talk to Old Marcos, who speaks the old language. They don't believe anyone knows the language. His line, his stories go back to days they know nothing about. They only want the gold. What do they care about the stories that the poor have saved?"

"If these are your ancestors, why would you want to rob the graves and scatter the bones? It's your own greed. You'd sell whatever you could to anybody who gives you the most money."

The crowd livens like a nest of snakes, yelling, squirming around their spokesmen.

"You, from the universities, look at all the things you don't understand. There are graves of people like us we haven't opened. They went into the ground with nothing but their bones. Let them sleep. But the rulers, the rich, the ones with the army—like you there—it's time for them to give back what they took from us. They have lived standing on our heads. Like you. Someday our descendants will raid your grave. Leave us what you owe us. Stop stealing what is ours. Stop killing those who take what is theirs."

"See, you can't talk to them," the bearded one tells the major. "What can you say?"

"Go home," the major calls out. "Disband and go home or you can join these bones in their graves. If you want to argue."

The one speaking lowers his head, opens out his hands as a witness to the ages. Will it always come to this? his stance asks.

Eventually, the thwarted villagers scatter back down the road in knots. Later, when the truckloads of recruits grind off across the desert, the staff and students of the academy linger behind. Resentful yet, the instructors look for any diversion that will save them from submitting to the negligent major and his unfettered ranks.

The director of the arqueological dig, Sr. Ponce, conducts a short tour, narrating with the pride of one who not so much disinterred the remains of a civilization as created them from the whole cloth of dust and sand. In a file, they descend three stairways and circle an open burial pit lighted with kerosine lanterns. Jowls and temples sweating, Sr. Ponce lowers himself from hands and knees into the recess of the mausoleum. A checkerboard matrix of strings stretch over the imprint of three shadowlike forms—skeletons he presents. Each, flattened like a pressed flower, occupies a separate low-walled coffin of stone. Gradually, Damian can make out the bones of one, part of the skull, the howling jaw, ribs like fishbones, and the legs bowed out at the knees with the feet heel to toe, as if in a drunken dance. Clouds of blue-green—crushed turquoise, the director tells them—drift among the bones like galaxies. Spangles and winglike shapes of tarnished metal halo one of the crushed heads.

"Is that gold?" Mario asks him.

"It is, and there's copper, too, green from the oxidation. We think this is the body of a warrior-king. The figures in the gold engravings and in the pottery of this grave all depict scenes of war. Here." He steps behind a camera-mounted tripod and stoops to pick up a folder from which he pulls several drawings. The boys gather above to see. In one sketch, a sneering man with plumed headgear, clubs the head of a prisoner sitting with open mouth and spread arms. In a second etching, a man with a feline head holds a knife in one hand and suspends a decapitated head by the hair in the other. In a third, a kneeling prisoner is noosed with a rope, a sketch that reminds Damian of a mummy he saw once in a small museum near Vieja. Leather-skinned, completely intact, the mummy—a man—sat naked with his knees to his chin, his head tipped back, his mouth wide, splitting his head with a silent scream, a rope constricting his neck like the string on a sausage.

". . . grew corn and beans, peppers, squash, potatoes, and all kinds of fruit," the director is lecturing. "Two thousand years ago, these people also dined on guinea pigs, Muscovy ducks, fish, and deer. They drank corn beer."

"Is that a dog?" one of the other students asks of the smallest skeleton.

"Yes, a kind of whip-tail, maybe a hunting dog that went with this warrior to hunt or fight in the other world. And the third skeleton there belonged to a woman, his wife perhaps, maybe a favorite concubine. She was sacrificed like the dog for his burial."

"Like a dog," Damian says.

"Excuse me?" Sr. Ponce responds.

"Do you suppose she wanted to be sacrificed?"

"It may have been an honor."

"An honor she volunteered for?"

"What are you asking?" The director lifts on his toes.

"Only what that man from the village was saying about some people standing on the heads of others. I guess it depends on who calls it an honor."

"These are not my relics, not my treasure," Sr. Ponce retorts. He has no lips.

"Go back to the bus, Damian," one of the instructors tells him. "We're getting a free guided-tour of an arqueological excavation, and you want to be impudent." This teacher's name is Luis.

Damian obeys. But the second teacher calls after, stops Damian on the stairs. "Wait, do you really think the director is taking something, and the villagers are giving something?"

"Somebody, sometime, took something, don't you think?"

Luis scowls. "You're talking like a communist. That could get you in a lot of trouble."

"I don't know how communists talk." Damian proceeds on up the stairs.

"They talk about deserving something they don't earn," Luis yells after him.

"Like the woman in the grave?" Damian says under his breath.

"What?" Luis yells.

Damian doesn't answer. Luis flies up the stairs, catches Damian out on the platform, snags his shoulder, and spins him. "Don't you walk away from me when I'm talking."

"I'm going to the bus like you told me."

"What was the last thing you said?"

"I don't know how communists talk."

"No, after that."

"Nothing."

"You're a liar, too. If you get kicked out of Sacred Fatherland, what will your father do?"

"I don't know."

"Does it matter?"

"No."

"Fine, then we'll send you home on a bus."

Damian sucks a shot of air through his teeth. "Don't send me back. I'll keep my mouth shut."

"Your mouth is only part of this."

"You won't have to deal with me again. I don't want to leave."

"What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing."

"You've got some bad ideas."

Damian doesn't respond.

Luis shakes his head in a weary, you-leave-me-no-choice manner.

"Yeah," Damian hastens to agree, "I've got some bad ideas."

"You better fix them."

Nodding, Damian wonders how anybody could think ideas might be changed like tires.

Luis smiles, taps him on once on the chest. "You won't, I know. That's what you're thinking." His forehead slides back like a cowl. "You're trouble." He walks away.

"Can I stay?"

"For now, Torres," he says over his shoulder, "but you are your own curse. You'll end up as your own punishment, too."

Mario asks Damian the next day about provoking the teachers and the director. "Did you expect to change their minds about something?"

"No. It was for me."

"What's it do for you?"

"It keeps their poison from working in me."

"Ignore them. It's easier."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Around them, my free will isn't free enough to do that."

"That's what I'm saying. Why let somebody you hate control you?"

"There you are."

"No, that's a question."

"And the answer."

"Quit playing with me."

"I'm not playing with you. Do you think he's right, that I'm cursed?"

"I do when you talk like this. In circles."

"I've got a circle in me."

"Maybe that's what he meant by a curse."

"A circle isn't a curse," Damian says, wondering if he sounds hopeful.

"Look, Damian, just ignore them."

"That's not the curse Luis's talking about."

Mario doesn't say anything.

"Is it?"

Mario staggers mockingly.

"All right, forget it," Damian tells him. "I know more about this than you do."

"More about what you don't know?"

"Yes."

They're walking alone in the desert, an immense plain of gravel and sand, empty but for an occasional mesquite tree and the herds of U-shaped Barchan dunes spaced out about them. In this field exercise on desert survival, teams of two search for a series of caches, each provisioned with water, a tin of fish, and directions (to be gauged by the sun) and the distance to the next cache. The course is designed to take most of a day. Each pair of students is sent out in 15-minute intervals. To foil any of them from following the tracks of previous teams, the instructors assign each pair a particular loop of caches with some shared and others unique to the twosome. When Luis scheduled Damian for the last tour, Mario volunteered as his partner.

Not long after they leave, Mario pulls a dark plastic bag from his pocket and they rig sun visors. Braided, thorn-pruned mesquite twigs frame the two makeshift hats. The sun towers, ululates. The heat seems supersonic, a thin unheard sound stretched inside their chests, between parched lungs. An hour and a half out, they find their first cache under a stone cairn. They drink from a two-liter plastic canteen. "Save some," Mario says. He pockets the brass token that proves their arrival.

"We're supposed to leave the canteen." Damian wipes his mouth, then noting the droplets on the ham of his thumb, licks them off.

"I know. Here." Mario extracts two balloons from a back pocket, dangles one. "Fill it with mouthfuls."

"You thought about this, didn't you?"

"I talked to an upper classman."

Later, Mario drinks from his balloon, taking it all as they're about to locate the next cache. But then the garua—a coastal fog—falls. The sun vanishes along with horizon landmark of distant desert buttes. They slow and separate a stone's throw so as to better their chances of crossing tracks. But they wander for several hours. Damian stops fingering his balloon of water and suspends it in the torn plastic bag material that was once his hat.

In the darkening evening they've crossed no tracks and the once sandy plain has changed to harder gravel and broken rock. They argue about directions; Damian defers to Mario's judgment. Mario finds a rusted can and they imagine the forms of tents materializing at any time out of the white coolness. But they go on through the evening into darkness, until they can see nothing, then lie in the lee of a big dune and try to sleep. Damian, finding that his balloon has gotten softer, fears it will break. He asks Mario for the can he found.

"Drink it. Use it now."

"In the morning. Do you have the can?"

Mario pushes it to him, and Damian fills it with the contents of the balloon. He places it out in front of his face, within reaching distance, and then lies watching it until his lids fall.

Damian sleeps brokenly. In the faintest gray light of dawn he wakes to a lapping sound. When he opens an eye, another eye watches back, but the lapping does not slow. "Ay!" Damian yells, bolting. The gray figure ghosts away into the fog. Most of the water is gone.

"Umm?" Mario stirs.

"He got almost all of it." Damian gulps what remains, then crushes the rusting can, the image of that large amber eye, a wet, pink tongue still fresh against the grayness.

"He?"

"A fox. What's a fox eat out here?"

"Corpses of people who get lost in the fog." Mario sits crookedly. "Why didn't you drink it last night?"

"Because I didn't need it that bad yet."

"How bad do you think the fox needed it?"

"The fox lives here."

"So did the people Ponce is digging up. Let's go. We can see."

They stand. Mario glances about at the opacity, shrugs, and starts off in no particular direction Damian can discern. He follows willingly. "But they're gone, too, those people, all lost in the fog," Damian says.

"Maybe not. Did you hear them say there was somebody in the village who still spoke the language?"

"You're saying they've been here all along?"

"Maybe. They work at being invisible to keep from getting their heads cut off."

Damian wonders what a native to this desert did in the fog. Maybe they sat it out, something he—Damian—could not do. It's purely a matter of temperament, and his is to rise to the problem, to find a way back by seeking, not by sitting.

They walk for hours in a direction that becomes less negotiated and more passively chosen, a stupified merging of inclinations. Although they start out spaced a stone's throw from one another, they eventually converge, trudge along together. "What would you do," Damian muses aloud, "if I didn't think I could go any farther?"

"I'd go on."

"Without me?" He rouses.

"Yes."

"I wouldn't go on without you."

"You mean if I stopped?"

"You know, if you broke your leg or something."

"I'd make you leave."

Damian frowns. He's silent for a while. "That's not right," he says finally. "We should stick together."

"You mean if one dies, both of us should die?"

Damian squints at him.

"Pretty stupid, don't you think?" Mario presses.

"But we're in this together."

"Till we aren't."

Damian broods on this anti-covenant—in a emergency, bail out, betray your partner. A small, bitter fire smolders inside him, and as the day lapses on, he can feel it burning the otherwise numb weight of exhaustion. They walk for hours without speaking.

It's Mario who wants to stop first. "I'm going to try and sleep, rest up, and then walk in the dark."

"You want me to go on?"

"Do what you want to do."

Damian tries to read him. "I will," he says.

Mario flops down, curls on his side, rests his head on his folded arm. Damian stands over him. "Are you that tired?"

"I'm tired," Mario says without looking up. "My mouth is dry as dirt. Maybe the garua will lift. This way I can stretch out the time, give it a chance to clear." He runs a finger over his flaking lips.

"You and the fox got more water than I did. How come you're so tired?"

"I don't know."

"But you don't care if I go on?"

"Not if you want to."

"I guess I'll stay."

"Don't do it for me."

"What if I want to do it for you?"

"Whatever you do, it won't be for me."

"What?"

"Listen Damian, I'm too tired, too dry, to fight. I want you to do what you want to do. How can you argue with that?"

Damian considers kicking him. Mario's exhausted—the first to go down—but he's still got all it takes to stick the knife in. Damian grinds his dusty teeth with the wronged, dependent puppy he's become. He lies down some distance away, on his back, legs and arms spread. Hey God, look down at an idiot.

He turns his head from the formless white above, gazes at the particles of sand from the periphery of his eye. Have other feet ever tracked this lost swatch of hell? He tries to imagine other generations, other people two millenia before, other moronic hopes and excruciating discoveries, hot and eternal on ageless sand. He imagines himself in a setting where all strife is elemental: the search for food, water, a wife; building a home. Then he remembers the rope around the mummy's neck. Other centuries, other messes.

He dozes. The rope is around his neck. His captor is the soldier who wanted the ray. What will you do to me?

"What do you want me to do to you?" the soldier asks Damian.

"I don't know. What are you supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?"

"Supposed?" the soldier says. "Supposed?"

But now it's the soldier with the rope around his neck. Damian loosens it, but the soldier flares. "Leave me to die of thirst or cut my throat. One or the other."

"What if I let you free?"

"Then I'll cut your throat."

"Do you want to die?"

"Of course not." The soldier is Mario.

"But you're making me kill you. I'll let you live if you walk off. We can leave as if we never saw each other."

"No," Mario says, "one of us must die."

"Why?"

"Because we are enemies."

"Our people are enemies. We don't have to be enemies."

"It would be easier to kill you than to go back as a coward. Or a liar."

"It would be easier for me not to say anything, and we both live," Damian says.

"No, then we both live bad lives, cursed. And our deaths would be bad."

"Cursed?" Damian cries. The word is a curse. "Why do we have to be cursed?"

"Do you want to live as a liar, sworn to do what you won't?"

"Your people live only for death and revenge. That's what you're saying."

"And honor. Your people live in shame, that's what you're saying. You see how easy it will be for us to conquer you? You ask to be conquered. You want it."

"But you've conquered yourself with bad ideas. The honor of power is a lie. You only want a reason for killing."

"Does one people conquer another? Is that a lie?"

"But, wait—" Damian says.

"No, tell me if it happens. You know it does, and the victors are there for honor. This honor gives them the will to prevail. Anything else is surrendering."

"The world goes to the mighty. Only war-mongers win. That's all you're saying."

"And all you're saying is that it could be different, soft and warm, and wouldn't it be nice?"

"I think it takes more courage to stand in the way of killers."

"Let's see who has the courage. Kill me or give me your knife. One of us takes the other's head."

"Why would I ever want your head, Mario?"

"It's come to that, the price of survival."

"Why would I want to survive at the price of your death?"

"Because it's inside you, a will to live, the same will that made you take your first breath at birth."

"But we're not enemies, you and I. We're friends."

"Just the way it happened, without any good reason for it, nothing more than where we were born, under what phase of the moon. Where we got spit out."

"Whatever we are, we're worth something together."

"Not much. You believe in too much. It's so much simpler. Here, I've got the knife. And the will, you see." Mario grabs Damian's hair, yanks his head back, and puts the knife to his throat. Damian searches Mario's face, but Mario, cold and distant, won't look at him, concentrates instead on his own sawing hand.

Damian opens his eyes, blinks at the raspy aridity of his lids. The sun is setting just over his knees. He sits. The fog is gone. He gets to his feet, climbs to the top of a dune. Toward the sun, he recognizes the low buttes west of the camp. He turns to the east, scrutinizes the horizon, three or four hours off, maybe more, where in the weak flutter of heat eddies he can make out the scribbling of a road. He looks down at Mario, lying in curled stillness in the center of the dune's horseshoe. "Mario," he calls, "wake up." Damian touches his smooth, unscarred throat. He imagines headless skeletons under the dune. "Mario."

 

Previous Piece Next Piece