The Killing Field
in which we wander
She wasn’t nervous. She didn’t get nervous anymore. The years of lecturing had worn down the fear that she would forget what to say, until it was smooth and polished, like a small marble she could just flick away. It was just the way her hair was pulled up and back from her face tonight, she thought.
Applause came rushing towards her, a wave of white noise, and she felt the warmth from the lights on her bare shoulders. She smiled and tilted her head, in what she hoped was a grateful and graceful motion, but this caused the noise to swell, and increase in tempo. All at once, she was afraid she might start crying.
She thought, suddenly, of their first trip to the island, years ago. She had ended up in his lap late one night, a place meant for a woman much smaller than she was. “They warned me about you,” he’d said, as his fingers moved up and over her collarbone. She had to resist bringing her hand up to her chest now, on a stage underneath the lights, and her smile turned into something that was more a baring of her teeth. She blinked slowly, and then she was back in the fog on the beach.
It was her first time back on the island. In the afternoon, she drove around aimlessly. She didn’t want to give him, or the island, the satisfaction of going anywhere on purpose. The third day, she ended up at the beach. When she got over the first dune, though, all she could see was a wall of fog where the ocean was supposed to be.
She couldn’t see the waves, but she could hear them. Her mouth opened slightly, trying to smile, but not quite remembering how. For a few minutes, she wandered around, listening to the sound of the hidden waves coming and going. For a few minutes, she forgot that there was a thing called pain.
Then, she turned back towards the truck, and that’s when she saw the way the fog was moving across the beach. It was steaming up from the ocean, racing towards and then over the dunes. When it hit the trees, it went straight up and then over them. It was as if the world had forgotten how it was supposed to work, or maybe gravity didn’t matter on the island. It was water in the sky, moving up.
She’d been in this kind of fog once before, with him. He’d taken a picture of her, pants rolled up and her bare feet sunk deep in the rippled mud. One arm was up in the air as she tried to keep her balance, and they were laughing. She remembered how their laughs sounded together. When things were good, they had filled up all the air and time and space around each other with that sound.
The crews loved his stories. How he caught an armadillo and threw it into the pool full of interns one night. The time she pushed him off the bluff at the beach, sending him rolling down towards the waves. As the laughter died down, on cue, she would fire back with the necessary other half of the story, as to why she had pushed him off a cliff, and would do it again. How he had locked the keys and the radio in the truck, on South Beach. How he’d graciously given her his hat one cold winter, and then she found out he'd gotten it from a dumpster the day before.
Then, it was his turn again. He'd find a way to move next to her and rest his hand briefly on the place it liked, just at the top of her hip. He knew that would make her forget to pretend to be mad at him. They would look at one another in a way that brought a stillness to the room, as if time had tripped on itself and stopped for a moment. If they had been able to look away from one another then, they would have known that everyone else knew. Of course they did.
Back on the beach, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine his hands on her, but of all the things she remembered, even thoe things she didn’t want to, that wasn’t one of them. She felt so alone then that she didn’t know if she was real, and she gasped at the possibility and pressed a hand to her stomach. She hadn’t known how to protect herself from what she hadn’t known was possible - from the magic of water in the sky moving up, or from him. It had started before she even understood it, much less how she might stop it.
It had started when they found the cemetery. The first grave they worked together was a partially cremated man. He stood beside her when she was done, looking at the ring of black soil around the body, powdery and white. “They put bark on him. To keep him.. burning…,” and her voice trailed off then. He took her hand, darkened and looking charred itself, and rubbed his thumb over the back of it until the color came off onto his.
The second grave they worked was double burial - a woman, laid next to a man, whose arms had been stretched out towards her for the last 400 years. There were no words for what would happen later between them. There were no words for any of it.
Who hasn’t wanted to feel strongly enough about something to be broken by it? She had asked herself that question, that first trip, looking down at their ash covered hands. Yes, that was how it had started. He took her hand and she let him, needing very much to break something, even if it was herself.
He insisted, back then, that he would tell her. That he owed her that much. When she saw him again in the airport, his eyes moving down as he shrugged both hands into his pockets, she knew he hadn’t gone through with it. She was too fragile, he said. Something closer to the truth was that he liked having to be strong for someone. You’ll never need me like she does, he said, and she couldn’t argue with that.
"You will never put me in this position again," she yelled at him, again.
She threw the words at him, wishing she could make them heavier and perhaps more damaging. Wishing they had the weight of a finality she didn’t believe in. She knew then that her capacity for cruelty was actually greater than his. She wasn’t proud of this, or any of it. Most of the time she felt like one of those little crabs on the beach, waving around their one big claw. See me, choose me, love me. It might have burned itself out then, though, even then, if it hadn’t been for the tree.
Hollowed out beneath from the tides, they swam through roots as thick as their arms and pulled bits and pieces of bone from between them. One afternoon she felt something pop underneath her foot, and watched as the tree loosened itself from the land and fell into the tidal creek.
Then, she was holding a skull. She thought she should set it down, but she wasn’t sure where. The tide was going out and taking bones with it, and they worked in a blur of bags and paper forms that kept getting wet, the words running like tears down the pages. She felt someone pulling her away and out of the water, and she lay down on an incredibly old, soft, blue tarp. When she woke up, she crawled back into the water and directed someone else towards the tarp. Someone came with food, but there was dirt underneath her nails and flecks of bone too, that she couldn’t get out. She just drank something bitter they handed her until she was able to bring the food to her mouth and swallow it, and then they went back to work.
They took turns holding up the lights. No one spoke, except to call for the photographer, and then she heard him say, “Tomás. There’s an infant here that deserves a photograph.” Someone on the crew looked at her then with an expression on their face she didn’t recognize, and that’s when she realized she was crying. Eventually, the lights began to flicker as the generators died. They had flights out the next day, that couldn’t be changed. They climbed into the back of the truck. He put his arm around her on the ride home, and she put her face into his shoulder, and came undone.
After they left that year, she had wandered around South Africa, Spain, Germany. He went home, to her. But every season that they came back to the island, the wanting would grow again. Among all the things they couldn’t bear to feel, it was the one that was able to be relieved. She would look across the table at him during dinner and know that when she left, he would follow her to the field behind the cabins. She could draw a map of the stars above that spot.
“I want to make love with you,” he whispered, his forehead against hers. As if they could just create love, wherever or whenever they happened to need some. The way a tree makes wood from the air.
The killing field, he had once called it, and she breathed in so sharply her chest blossomed with pain, from laying down to excavate all day. Don’t ever let anyone hear you say that, she said. He just stared out at the water, the corners of his mouth twitching, and horrified, she realized she might start laughing. She tried to light a cigarette, but didn’t have enough strength in her hands to hold it steady. It wasn’t from a lack of feeling, she knew. Rather, it was from too much - that’s the only reason he could say that. He said something else wicked then, and she laughed, her chest exploding, and she thought: this, even when it hurts, I love him.
They were alone on the island once, having made excuses to stay for a few days after the rest of the crew left. They slept on the beach at night, tangled up together, and watched the sun rise. During the day they wandered down to the village, his hand holding hers, and ate from the street carts. One day he tugged her towards the docks, to watch the boats come in. The men began tossing fish, and what looked like a few small sharks, up into wooden crates. He launched into a detailed description of the global shark trade, legal and illegal, and how they sometimes "finned" the sharks and tossed them back in the water, still alive. They died slowly, wandering aimlessly in the ocean, because they couldn’t swim properly without their dorsal fin.
She had looked it up when they got back to the cabins, because sometimes he just made these kinds of things up to get a rise out of her, and to get caught - but he was right, about all of it. She thought she might know something about how those sharks felt. He took a piece of her with him, a piece that she needed to survive, every time he caught her. She couldn’t move towards anywhere or anyone else, without it. She couldn’t figure out where to go, or how to be alive in the world, when she was in such pain.
They got drunk that night, dancing together until he dropped her, and then they stumbled home in the rain. He stopped just before the bridge, tugging at her hand again, and said, loudly and for the first time, “I love you.” He folded her into his chest as she started crying, and she came undone, again. She’d lost count.
They left the next day, and then it was over.