The Conversationalists

THE TRENCHES & THE BLISS, 2016

CHAPTER 3

Then He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I replied, “Lord GOD, only You know.” 

— Ezekiel 37:3, The Holy Bible

One night passed, and then another day. My stomach had given up its demands and my tongue was beginning to surrender to the roof of my mouth. A stain of dried blood showed beneath the bandage on my side. The weather was beginning to press its uncomfortable coolness against my skin when I heard the sudden mechanical whirr of the cell door sliding open. A guard stood at the entry and we examined one another with keen eyes. 

My examination didn’t venture far from his face; that is how one comes to know man and beast, after all. He was burly but it was the depths of his darkened eyes that first took me; cinnamon in color, his eyes strode into the room before him with all of the confidence of a passion that subdued mere mortals with the very self-assured knowledge that it believed nothing in common with their mortality. They were frightening and admirable all at once — an admission I preferred to bury. What might have been a beard was instead a bold tattoo of half-circles crashing around his jawline like burly waves. He held something in his right hand that he tossed at me. 

“Put it on,” he said. “Ten seconds.” 

The door closed between us. 

I lost two seconds just knowing I would not complete the task in ten. I chose to attempt the change in the dirt. I was sitting in my underwear wrestling with the QPUB, grey, cotton pants when the door whirred open again.

He did not hesitate this time, but entered my cell and pulled me up by an arm. 

“Stand up!” he shouted. 

I grunted, wincing as he pulled. It was no use fighting; I knew that much. So, I stood in the pain — small lightening bolts zinging up my leg and a dull throb stretching across my core. 

“I told you to be done in ten seconds!” His thick, wide hand rocketed across my face. 

I did not reply — I could not. My vision had blurred and my face was still pulsing. My words were lost, scattered by the hit.

He pushed me and I tripped over my attempt to put on the pants, which fell off entirely as he yanked me up again and pushed me outside of the cell into a dimly lit hall where another guard waited to cuff me; then the first guard — Burly — escorted me outside. 

Not many wore pants, as this right seemed confined to the guards and other QPUB staff. There were three distinct lines of prisoners — trainees, they called us — and a fourth disheveled line of foot traffic behind us; all of the trainees were bared down to their underwear. I wouldn’t have my shirt long. 

We were standing in a courtyard under the open, night sky. The modern quadplex towering around us had a sterile glow in the white moonlight. A glow of yellow lit the windows at the front of my line — the one in which Burly had left me. There were at least twenty men ahead of me. 

A small flicker drew my attention to a shallow inlay of brass in the middle of the courtyard about eight to ten feet on my right and about that long; it was maybe four feet wide. It had filled with water during the last rain, I assumed, being about two inches depressed from the pavers. The moon was reflecting upon it. 

I had lost all interest in the small pool when two guards suddenly thrust a cuffed, older man face down into it and walked away. The man gurgled, then rocked side to side, as if trying to turn over, but something prevented him — an unseen injury perhaps. 

“Help,” he moaned, as his face dipped in and out of the water. 

I looked around at the other trainees. Few seemed to notice, and the ones who did, looked as betwixt as myself — knowing better than to help yet wholly uncomfortable with the scene. 

“I’m drowning!” He half screamed, half sputtered. His head bobbed, up and down. He had already given up rocking.

Finally, three trainees from line three, just on the other side of the pool, seemed to take an interest, and this is what I overheard: 

“I think he’s drowning,” said a voice with a feminine quality.

“I don’t think so; it’s like an inch of water,” a definite male laughed.

The older man gurgled again and kicked his legs. 

“Help him!” the feminine voice insisted.

“He needs to turn his head or roll over,” said a voice of indifference.

“It’s only two inches of water,” replied the definite male.

“You can drown in one inch and he thinks he’s drowning,” the feminine voice persisted.

“Exactly: he thinks he is; that doesn’t make it so,” said indifference again.

“He’s gurgling and kicking his legs!” 

“Why doesn’t he just turn over?”

“What an idiot.”

“He’s turning blue!” 

“I’m not helping him; it’s two inches deep.” 

“He’s faking; it’s all in his head.”

A small moment of silence passed amongst the conversationalists before the feminine spoke again:

“He’s dead… You let him drown.” 

“You let him drown too,” returned the man.

“How could you?” 

“’How could you’? You didn’t do anything either,” replied the apathetic one.

I tore my eyes away and fixed them back on the yellow lights ahead, but every cell of my body was locked up. A billion arrows the size of needles were shooting across my upper back, taking aim at vague darkness, undefined shadows and encrypted threats, but I straightened my back nonetheless. I would not let them break me. I would not let them… 

Them?

My stomach fell eighty dollhouse floors — 

It was just a thought —

It was just a whisper of a thought — 

I tried to silence it with the rod of my backbone, but I could not reason it away — 

I, too, had let the man die.  

I didn’t do anything either.

I could reason that I might compromise myself in trying and what was the use? But when I thought that might be me someone reasoned away some dreary evening, my reasons felt less valid. 

My thoughts shook my head, side-to-side. I only wanted to hear the buzz of the lights coming from the covered walkway beside me and the steady song of the crickets rising from the endless fields beyond the quad, but my mind held fast the accusation. It railed at me. 

I knew I would be no match for ‘training’ if I entered with an already disturbed mind. I tried to fight, but the night was all-encompassing and dark, and my resistance had been long ago weakened by heavier blows to the heart.

The same two guards dragged the drowned man off into the darkness and no one said any more words about it.  

***

This work-in-progress (WIP) is like reading a first draft. There will be inconsistencies and oversights because it hasn’t been through a proper editing phase yet. Fair warning. I always welcome feedback; it makes my job easier in the end.

Rereading this story has been unnerving because of how each chapter, I find, mirrors some current sentiment of a spiritual trench for me again. Nonetheless, the story is incomplete… like my life. Ha. (Thank God for that.)

I will eventually run out of chapters and have to start writing again. I haven’t yet. But I will. This is my challenge to myself I guess.

This is what I call one of my “course” stories. We will plunge the depths; don’t expect the sanitized or sanctified here. But we will pull it back out on top like a good Psalm of David.

Here is my heart in this endeavor: To reach out into the world and compel the one lost sheep. In the real world, most of my interactions happen amongst the 99. But in fiction, my burden is often different, often outside of church contexts…

In the end, we all meet the Maker and have a choice to make. Better (pained) now than (pained) later, dear soul.

So, walk with me… through the trenches and the bliss. That’s where you’ll find me.

Shalom.

(Missed the beginning? Chapter 1 is here.)

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