An Axe for Peaches: PART II
227 watches 103’s hands as he husks the corn. He snaps the shank from the base of each ear, strips the silks off the fruit. He discards the silks and shanks from the ears, emptying the first basket, filling two others. They stand together, his coveralls tight around his midsection. 103 wears a loose tattered garment draped over his shoulders like a shawl. He daily complains of the chill of the camp. It is always damp, frequently wet, covered in constant grey.
227 lays husks and silks to stoke the fire, as 103 lays the cobs atop the chain link grate. She is transfixed by his square knuckles, the way they wrap around the cobs. He places one ear after the other in a row above the flames. He will remove them this way, as he did yesterday, as he’s done for the weeks she has been here, with his large bare hands, making the corn miniature when wrapped inside those massive palms, unconcerned with their considerable heat. Stray blonde locks hang over his face, escaping the high bun he fashions atop his head. His shoulders, like his knuckles, are wide and square with wiry curls of hair that run down his arms. He is a block of a man, his presence the foundation of any room.
227 prepares the beans in a wide pot near 103, talking out of the side of her mouth in a whisper.
“Smart, about the corn.”
“Our keepers. The corn has moisture too. You know this?
“Keeps us thirsty.”
“Well, it was my idea, the corn.
“Yeah, easy on digestion, more liquid. Our bodies need this. I was half joking when I said it, but it stuck. Thought they’d turn me down. But its light on cost, and keeps the canned peach budget down.”
They set up the corn in a pyramid on the long table. Each number will take a single cob and a measured half cup of beans. 103 handles the corns. 227 scoops a cup and slices the excess beans with a wood dowel, dumps it atop each plate. They do not talk during service. The men come quickly, hoping for an extra bean to slip through past the dowel, for an extra ear to end up atop their plate.
Otherwise he is talking, always. It is his talking that fills the days and shortens them. 103 has stories of this new world as if it is an old one. He speaks of the events of the last year or two here, like ancient histories. Standing over the corn, for the second time in her life all she can think about is the taste of meat, of snapping a chicken by its neck, of stripping and cleaning it hastily to get it over a fire.
She went vegetarian a few weeks in her teens. Her parents developed their eye roll, didn’t lift a hand to help, or an ear to understand. She ate fruits, vegetables, but mostly didn’t eat. Three salads a day with no dressings. When her parents came back from a short weekend away, they didn’t find solo cups or the remnants of a party, they found their daughter doubled-over with cramps, her body starved for protein. She was back on meat within a month.
This is the third straight day of heavy rain this week. Hard to keep the fire going like this, in the wet - the mist has taken up residence. Her hut door is stuck. Mud is clogging up the entryway, sliding under the jam and hardening beneath it. 227 is restless with all the rain, afraid of being trapped in the hut. She opens the door, aware that it will be interpreted as an invitation to the ghosts.
The other men here are shadows, they rise and spread like vapor. During daylight hours, they are visible, in their pale grey skin, raisined by the moisture and the rainfall. But past curfew they are snakes, slithering up, appearing out of nowhere. Her locked door is the only reason she sleeps at all.
It comes as no surprise to 227, leaving her door ajar enough to get in and out of, that such a serpent would appear. He even looked like a hiss. Beady eyes, mouth open while breathing, hair wet over his face. He is a shape, then a face, then a foot in the door. She reaches for her axe when a familiar hand descends on the intruder’s head. The intruder’s body goes limp under the clonk of the fist.
“I could see ‘im round the way, lurking near your window,” says 103, ducking his head into the hut. 227 lights her candle. 103 cradles his balled fist in his open palm.
“Did you hurt your hand?”
“I’m fine. Why didn’t you tell me about the door? I would’ve closed it.”
“I wouldn’t have had a way out.”
“I would’ve let you out in the morning.”
“I can’t live kept that way. They could just as easily burn me in place if they saw you lock me in.”
“Any snake in this village.” She motions to the limp body on the ground. “Come in here, 103, get out of that rain. Is it hurt? Let me see.” 103 bends to check on the body, places his square hand around its soft neck.
“What is it?”
“Think he’s dead.”
227 jumps out of bed. She sticks her head out of the hut, peers out at the black village. A lit torch hobbles in the distance, a guard on his rounds. Help me close the door.
“He’ll stink by morning,” says 103 says.
“Forget about him.”
“I never killed a man.” 227 places her hand over 103’s, gathers his attention with her eyes.
“What is beyond the wall?”
“Search your mind. Deliveries you’ve made, the farmland perimeters, what have you seen? How far past to an open gate?”
“I’ve seen them farms. But beyond them farms is only forest. And word is they’ve hidden traps, electronics, like walking into an open throat.”
“Sounds like a proper place to get lost.” 103 shakes his head at her, fearful of the idea awakening in the hut.
“There ain’t no good way out.”
“This body laying here, we can distract the camp with its death.”
“They’ll hunt us.”
“They’ve given us axes.”
“They got more axes. Swords. Arrows. Guns, I think.”
“Have you seen guns?”
“No. But they’re there. Why wouldn’t they have ‘em?”
“If you can get me to the forest -”
103 looks around 227’s hut. There is no trace that she occupies the place, no small carvings line the windows, no extra linens are folded on the mud-shelves, no additional coveralls.
“You were going to leave anyway.”
“Tonight, yes.” 227 reaches beneath her pillow, she extends two full ears of corn. “Here,” she says, handing 103 a full ear, “we’ll need our energy.”
“Who are you?”
“Just get me to the forest. Now, help me lift him.”
Near the food hall is an abandoned pole. They carry the body low between them by its arms and feet. A snapped twig could rat them out. The moon hangs behind dense clouds promising more rain. 103 is a black box in blue outline. 227 follows his bobbing shape towards their dayjob. A far away fire crackles by guard tower three, its long wooden beams flicker with orange light behind the outlines of the huts between them.
It is late. 227 is grateful for the hour, though her plan was to leave later in the night, closest to dawn, when even those awake are fighting sleep. This is when the sleep is deepest, cold air seeping into the huts, bodies doing the work of insulating. They arrive at a fallen beam.
“We two can’t drive it in the ground.”
“We only have to lean it. It only needs to rest against that.” 227 points above them to a wide and long beam that hangs over where the food is cooked.
“So we tie him to this beam, and lean it against that beam.”
“Yes. But first we position this one to stand up and lean perpendicular. If we lean him on an angle, he’ll only fall.” 103 picks the beam up.
“Pardon,” he says, nearly knocking 227 over as he pivots the beam away from the food hall. He rests the top of the beam about twenty feet away from the base of the food hall structure.
“Come grab him.” 227 is already lifting the corpse’s hands again, tying rope around its wrists.
“Where’d you get the rope?” asks 103.
“I made it.”
“You made it?”
“It’s husks. Braided husks.” 103 wipes his wide hands over his face, stunned by her simple innovation. “Grab the legs,” she hisses. He shakes his awe and swoops the dead’s legs up. They hustle to the top of the post and tie the body to it.
“He’s ready.” 103 tugs each point of connection. Then he bends low and huffs the man and the attached post to his knee. “Guide beam,” he grunts through his teeth. 227 dips under the beam, catching it with her shoulder, she runs the length of it until she has no more space and pushes from there.
“Straight towards me,” she says, almost shouting. With a long creak 103 pushes the beam above his head and paces his way to the base of the beam, lifting the body-side higher and higher, until the man is fully in the air, dangling by the braided husks. “I’m footing it.”
227 rests her back against the food court’s fencing, guiding the beam towards her while pressing her feet against its base as it rises closer. 103 is a lumberjack, one strong hand under the next, his shoulder now crammed against the massive beam as he pushes the dead body further into the sky. 227 pulls, 103 makes his final upward lunge, the weight balances above them and shifts towards the food hall. The wood is wet, and hardly makes a sound as it smashes into a resting place. The body is a strange shape in the air above them.
There is a stir of motion by the guard tower. A voice is raising up above the village. A man is shouting. 103 ducks and stays in a low ball. He folds his hands over each other above him.
“We have to go, now,” says 227.
“I been here a long time.”
“I am going to light that body on fire.”
“When they come asking questions, you’ll be found out, and then hanged. C’mon, we have to be at the fence line when we spark the flame.”
Another voice shouts. It is unclear what the commotion is about with so many buildings between them. 103 and 227 dash along a ditch at the edge of the encampment.
“Wake ‘em up!” thunders a third voice in the distance. 227 places her hand on 103’s chest.
“That’s us,” says 227. “Hold this.” She hands him a thin stick with a wet cob atop it.
“This more corn?”
“Yes, dipped in kerosene. I took a lot.”
“How you gonna reach him?” 227 points behind them to a thin shiny trail.
“We’ve been leaking kerosene this whole time.”
“What’s the corn stick for?”
“Two chances. First we throw the stick at the body, then we light the trail.”
“Have you done this before?”
“Twice, let’s go.” 227 sparks a match and lights the cob stick.
“Wait,” says 103. “Let me throw it.” The massive man grips the stick and throws as hard as he can. The flaming cob drifts towards, over, and then far past the body. 227 shoots him a look. “Two ways, right?” 227 lights the kerosene trail, blue flames race along the path.
“Look,” says 103. Beyond the moving trail of fire another fire has sprung to life in one of the sleeping huts. “Looks like I hit one.” 227 watches the flame path as it reaches the erected beam. The beam sparks into an orange blaze. The body is engulfed, it lights the whole area around it.
“Now,” says 227. They duck under the fence line and race towards the forest.