Fulfillment

There’s a cool breeze over the roof of the apartments as we work, gleaning the pear trees in section seven of our Center, our day’s harvest and song drawing to an end. That’s what we do. We do pears. Seventy Five acres. All pears. 

I like pears. The sweet, sticky juice pouring from those coarse, gritty fruits as you bite them, chew them, smash them into paste. We call our Center Pear. That’s not its name; but I like it well enough as a name. The pears we sealed in crates are taken away at the end of day by the night crew. I envy the night crew. They get to work in the cooler air, and their labor does not revolve around the continual harvesting, cultivating, and maintaining the many thousands of trees. They work inside, some of them even get to transport the pears to the Distribution Center. I have never seen the Distribution Center. I finish one last box of pears and pass it down the rolling line as the work whistle signals the end of the day. I like the whistle.

I return to my room. I sit down to a dinner of pear curry and rice, paired with pear jelly over a coarse bread of pear meal. The rice is not pears. It’s rice. Jasmine rice, from another Center probably called Rice by its residents. I wonder what meat is like. We don’t get meat. I remember my mother talking about meat like it was incredible, but aside from the meat I’ve seen when someone cuts their foot with a spade in the field, I have not seen meat. I would not like to eat that meat. It courses with blood, and glistens like a sliced pear, and it belongs to someone,  I’d not want to take what belongs to someone else, that really belongs to them. There is no one else in my apartment; I used to have mates. I do not anymore. I miss the smell of them. The smell of a good day’s labor, of pear leaves and soil. 

I smell like compost. 

I know I should shower after work, but I’m too hungry today. No roommates or neighbors means more work for me. Many of the apartments are empty these days. I like the quiet, but I miss the noise. I miss the friends who picked pears with me, and laughed with me, and went with me to the Entertainment District when the season shifted and our work load allowed for leisure. But those lulls have all but gone; the season’s don’t seem to change anymore. It’s always summer, just hotter and cooler, rain and drought. Never snow. 

There has not been snow since before my mother’s time. She never mentioned snow. Yet I know the word. Why do I know the word? I know a lot of words and I know what they mean, yet I don’t have context. The weather is good for pears, they can grow almost all year round. Sometimes it’s too hot for good pears, but we pump out mist to keep them safe. I like the mist. 

The pears we ship to the Distribution Center are always beautiful. The ones we keep are ugly. Too small, too deformed. But they still taste good, and make good bread, and good curry, and good cobbler. Everything that leaves here is beautiful. 

I miss them.

I finish my dinner, and I feel something hard in my mouth; I spit it out. It is a seed. A pear seed. It is soft, yet still whole, a complete seed, a seed which could become a tree. We’re not allowed to have seeds. We don’t own the trees, and the seeds belong to the Owners also. We only tend the trees on their behalf. The seed is a proprietary particle. It is not mine, and yet I carefully pat the seed with my napkin, holding it like the sacred stone it is. Anyone caught with seeds would be punished. I rise with the seed in hand, and quietly walk to the shelf in the back of the room. I open the drawer, and retrieve an old sock. I place the new seed among the seven others, dry and safe, and return it to the drawer.

Dinner is finished, so I return my plates to the alcove from which they came, the dishes clattering as the conveyer reclaims the pieces, taking them back to the kitchens. I wonder who is working in the kitchens. I worked there once. It is not as easy as I imagine night shift is, but not as hard as I know day shift is in the fields. Whoever is down there, they made a good curry. I go to the washroom alcove and remove my day labor suit. It is yellow stained under the arms and around the neck and around the crotch. No, not yellow. Not the right word. Muddy yellow. A brackish color, like the color of blood in water after a rain, with the virulent shades of an iridescent sheen from pesticide runoff. I like my day labor suits. They keep me covered from the sun, shield me from the prickings of pear branches, the sharp sap suckers which grow after a pruning, ready to skewer you for having the audacity to alter the tree. I have many scars from those sap suckers. My cracked mirror shows them to me as I turn on the shower. I could turn on hot water and fog over the mirror to hide my appearance but I don’t. I reach up and touch the scar behind my ear, the three pin pricks, the hard node beneath them of a bit of wood still embedded there, a childhood injury. 

I want cold. It’s been hot. So I turn the water on cold, and soak my body in the icy runoff. I fill my mouth with water. I swallow great gulps of it, and the water runs down my face from my red eyes as I think about the empty rooms, the quiet hallways, and the pears. 

I stand at the window afterwards, towel in hand, and watch the trucks leave for the Distribution Center. In five hours, they will return with new supplies for our kitchen, our fields, and our homes. That’s why so many rooms are empty, isn’t it? Because they don’t have electricity. They don’t have central air. They don’t have running water, or bedrolls that aren’t threadbear. The trucks will come back with supplies to repair. They will come back with new residents. They will. I wait for the trucks. I can’t sleep much anymore. Not since he came. Not since he told me where he came from. Not since he told me why he came. 

It was maybe four months ago now. It was hot, and the sun blazed through the filmy sky as the sounds of cicadas echoed across the Center from end to end. I was near the eastern gate, packing pears between the sheets of soft, green fiber foam paper, sheet by sheet, box by box. We call it a gate because long ago there was a door there, a wrought iron gate. But that was not there anymore; iron was needed at the Distribution Centers, and the Owners didn’t care if a few pears disappeared every once in a while. The mist sprayed over my body as I worked, and I felt beautiful, like I belonged at the Distribution Center. As I lifted the finished box of pears to add to the rolling line I noticed a footprint which was unlike any I recognized. Our work boots had small ridges, perfect for gripping the mud around the trees; but these prints were smooth with closely knit grooves, like the shoes from which they came had spent countless hours walking back and forth over a smooth, unforgiving surface. I was curious, and so I left the pears and followed the footprints, which led toward the gate and curved around the old plaster wall. Around the corner there was a slumped figure. They were not from our Center. 

He was surrounded by pears, eaten down to the nub. His hands were sticky with pear juice, and dusted with silt from the road. He must have brought that silt with him on his clothes ーThe road was far from the gate. He did not move when I came toward him. His breath moved slowly, his chest rising and falling like a leaf nudged on a faint breeze. His clothes were a kind of refined, synthetic fiber; not stained with years of sweat; yet they were sweaty. Fresh tracts of oily stain were around his armpits, yet they seemed not to belong there. His clothes were not meant for sweat. I said hello, and he stirred slowly until his eyes rested on me; then he leapt with a start, as if I were dangerous. 

I assured him I didn’t mind he’d eaten the pears. I didn’t tell him how the pears weren’t as in demand; no one would mind if some went missing. I didn’t tell him that our Center was not in demand, and that we had not had a new resident sent from a Distribution Center in years. I didn’t tell him because I wanted him to stay. I told him there was plenty of room, and the pears were so sweet after a long day’s work. He stared at me confused for some time before he extended his hand to me with an offer of friendship. I liked him. 

His hand was smooth, yet his fingertips were callused on the thumb and forefinger. My sweaty palm stuck to his pear juice fingers for a moment before we pulled apart. I asked him how he came to be here, and he told me he’d come from another Center. He did not say which one. At night, when the air was mostly clear, I could make out perhaps seven other communities across the horizon. I thought perhaps he came from a place with apples, or oats, or something more exotic, like plastics, or water purification, or boots. I invited him inside and he followed me. He took a room near the gate, even though it had no running water or electricity, and slept on the ratty sleeping mat for two days before he came out again. 

I tried to loosen his tongue, get him to tell me where he’d come from, why he came here, where his old life was in the world, what he did at his last place, why he had such strange calluses on his hands. We would eat pears together in the field, and he would talk about how the heat was too much for him. His skin was baked and cracked, red yet never tanned, as though his body refused to adapt to the weather and conditions of working in the pear fields. After the first week of my careful prying, he finally did speak. 

    He told me he worked with machines. machines which built smaller machines, churning out handheld consoles used in other Centers for managing stock, and tracking resources, and contacting Distribution Centers.  But one day the trucks from the Distribution Center came in greater numbers. They did not come for the consoles. They didn’t need the consoles. They needed metal. So they took everything. The machines to make machines, the components for the consoles, the consoles as well, only to be stripped back down to parts, sorted by brass, iron, copper, silver, silicon. They took everything. And when the parts were gone onto the trucks, they evaluated the people. They spoke of a conflict, that the Owners required the material for the common defense of themselves, and that they would need bodies to feed their army. The healthy ones were taken on trucks to the Distribution Center. He did not want to go. So he left. They didn’t try to stop him. He said they wrote him down as “material unaccounted for.” A loss. What a shame. 

I had seen that behavior before. The workers from the Distribution Centers were closer to the heartbeat of the Owners.  It is a lilting cadence. A beat that skips. It does not care about waste. It consumes without thought of the crumbs, and leaves the dishes on the table, streaks of gravy still on the plates. 

 He walked along the road for three days from his former home. Distribution trucks passed him as he walked, but they never stopped. He wasn’t their problem. He said he could smell the pears before he could see our Center, his hunger was so strong. I laughed as he told me he was so eager that he bit his tongue three times while eating his stolen fruit. But behind my enjoyment to hear him speak, the fear he collected on his flight dripped on my roots and fed me in the same way. Would they come here, for something more than pears?

We accepted him quickly. We always liked to get new people. He worked alongside us collecting the pears, and caring for the trees. I asked him about his home, and he would talk about the pears. He seemed to like pears and the simple familiarity they offered us here. The sunset would come on everyday, followed closely by the whistle, and he would return to his apartment near the gate. He always returned right at sunset. His eyes always looked rigid at the end of day, like the dark would swallow him if he didn’t stop it. 

    We are glad to have him there; it had been so long since any new hands had come to join us in the fields. Together we planted new trees, pruned old ones, shipped thousands of sweet green fruits to the Distribution Center, waited for more residents to join us, to come and be with us in the fields, waited for those who would never come. Sometimes he would smile, and I would catch it before he quickly faded away, a mote of dust on the wind, his joy a single strand of dandelion silk, quickly swallowed in the bright glowing light of the midday sun. 

    He has helped us in many ways since coming. He is very smart. He showed us a way to use grass, to let it grow longer and take the fibers, and twine them to make sacks and rope and hats. His hands are strong, his eyes bright and powerful. I often catch myself looking at him as we work, and want him to see me, too.

I have stood by the window too long, now. The trucks have not yet returned. The stars above have spun most of their sequence, and I am finally tired, so with great effort I take myself from the window to my sleeping mat, and slip into dreams. It is a tenuous sleep. I drift between visions of trees without fruit, to his face, a twisted smirk as he digs at my roots. Then there is nothing, the deepest sleep, the black sleep, where metaphor has descended beyond visual, to the purely emotional, and I fight my heart as it beats the slow comfort I cannot abide, raging, knowing something I could not know, until the sunlight strikes me, and I awaken.

I dress in a clean day labor suit; clean is relative. It is still stained from years of use, but it does not reek of yesterday’s labor. It smells fresh, and has a starchy stiffness in the joints of the arms and legs as I pull on my boots and grab the breakfast plate from the alcove: pear pancakes with pear jelly and a porcelain mug of hot water with a coffee flavored tablet beside it. I quickly eat the coarse pancake first, then place the tablet inside my cheek as I sip the scalding water. Some of us place the tablet into the water, but I find it more effective to put it in my cheek. It enlivens me as it melts against the water of the mug and my mouth. I walk to my drawer as I suck the tablet. I take out the sock of seeds, and feel them, a rosary, a prayer. I hear the morning whistle call for me to come and labor, so I put the sock into my pocket. One more sip of hot water, and I go out into the sun.

He is already among the trees, folding the plastic crates for the day’s harvest. The others are emerging as I am, and then we enter into the work. We sweat as one great being, our hands the hands of one body. We travel along the length of the field, each tree we prune and glean, and today even he is part of us, his voice blending with ours, one single sound as we harmonize our labor song and in that moment of we, I feel a singular rapture, that I am myself and he is himself and yet we are together in our singularity. In this moment, I am not lonely. In this moment, our Center is full.

    We work until the whistle sounds, our tracks of sweat a shared tattoo on our faces. I catch his furtive smile and return one as his eye shift toward the gates. I turn to see what he sees; it is the night crew, but they seem disconcerted. We all watch as they approach us. They stand sullenly as we all shift from foot to foot, unsure why they are not collecting the crates, until one speaks. The trucks from the Distribution Center have not come. The confusion echoes as our voices break from the connection of our oneness. Why have they not come? The trucks have never been late before. What will we do with the pears? The cacophony is growing and I yearn for peace as I step up onto a stack of crates, and shout above the din. They all look at me, and I am petrified. Until he steps out from the crowd. He joins me on the crates, and holds my hand. His fingers are different now, callused in the same ways as my own. 

    I open my mouth to speak, unsure what I will say. I say that we should not be afraid. That no matter why the Distribution Center has not sent its trucks, we have worked a good work, and that this time of unexpected absence is an opportunity. An opportunity to celebrate, our good work, each other, and our kinship. There is a moment of quiet, before a murmur of agreement creeps through the evening air. We step out into the field, the wet soil a soft floor under us, and open a few crates, to share our labor’s food one with another. The night crew and the day crew together share, our two becoming one. The kitchen crew emerges also, confused why no meals have been summoned to the rooms, and quickly join our soiree. There is laughter, and conversation. He asks one of the night crew to bring him a console, which they quickly produce. He takes the device with a familiarity, and explains he can use it to connect to a network of the Owners. We do not understand until he makes the device play music. We had not heard music in a long time, not since our last journey to the Entertainment District. The music is sweet, a tune I have never heard, yet it touches me with a familiarity. The music is quiet, the device cannot sing any louder, yet it is enough; we dance.

We party for hours. The kitchen crew brings out food and a table. I am surprised to see a cake. Not one of pears, but of flour. A cook happily explains they have been saving the ingredients for this sweet, white frosted cake for a special occasion. This night is special. Another cook presents a box of urns which they explain contains a special concoction they have been working on. They are full of juice, with a strong, sour aroma. They say it is pear wine, and will make our cheeks red and give our minds a respite. We all try a small cup of it. It is horrid, but we laugh at the strangeness of it; we all drink, and we laugh and dance to the music as we eat cake and pear fritters and stew of salted barley. We are happy. The pear wine does give respite to my mind, I feel light. 

He and I dance, and he holds me. The night is far spent. I go home with him.

The sun rises, and wakens me. He lays beside me, his bare skin like pear flesh in the piercing morning light. My head thumps lightly as I stand and dress myself. He wakens, and we smile at one another. He dresses also, but before we can speak we hear a familiar sound: the engines of the Distribution Center Trucks. They have come. We quickly go out into the field, where everyone is gathering in the hum of the electric engines as the trucks pull directly into the orchard, over a dozen trucks, nearly twice as many as we usually see; we have never seen them arrive in the morning.

The trucks open, and men step out. Many men, with tools, long saws and axes, their faces sullen. I go to them, we all do, to ask why they have come. We show them the stacked pear boxes. We tell them we waited for them last night, that we are ready to deliver. They say they are not here for pears. That the Owners don’t want pears. The Owners don’t need pears. They need wood. They distribute axes and saws to us, and we are ordered to take down the trees.  

    The men move into the orchard. We follow. Our tools glow in the daylight like firebrands as we approach the trees. These are my trees. I have raised them, nurtured them. I have worked hard for the Owners, to tend this garden. As the limbs fall, I see the rich, creamy wood within. The trees weep as they are laid trunk by trunk beside the rolling line, and every eye drips like sap filled cuttings as the labor continues toward the evening. These are not my trees.

    I tremble as I watch the last tree fall. The ground is covered in crushed pears, a great, muddy press, the sticky juice a bloody battlefield where the innocent slain gave no resistance. My knees give out, sobs halting my breath, and I am caught by him; he holds me up, keeps me on my feet. His eyes stream, too. They command us to load the trunks into the trucks, but we do not. They do it themselves, collecting our tools, all of them, even the pruning hooks, and shovels, and the rolling cart. They tell us our Center is being closed as they emerge from their trucks with new tools, sledge hammers, and wire spoolers, and they begin taking everything, even the doors of our apartments. We are told to line up as another Distribution Center worker begins examining us, saying the Owners will need healthy workers elsewhere. 

    I ask where they will take us. They say the Owners are in conflict with other Owners, to the south. That they will not let their property fall into enemy hands. They say we will go south, to fight and protect the Owners. I say I do not want to fight. He comes up beside me, and squeezes my hand. They stare at me, blankly, as they plug a few figures into their handheld console. They say they do not need me, that I am “material unaccounted for.” We come together, all of us who do not want to go. It is most of us. I am sad to see some of the night crew and the kitchen crew clamber onto the trucks, yet I am heartened to see every day labor suit standing in the fading light, one body, one voice, our hands the hands of one body, clasped with each other as the trucks pull away into the night. 

Our Center is a husk now. There is nothing left; we all explore our old rooms, each stripped bare, dark, even the light bulbs have been taken. Only detritus remains, with us among it. I hear lamentation growing from the field as we slowly return from our stripped homes. There is nothing left for us here. As the night before I step out among them, and again he joins me, hand in hand. This time he speaks. He tells them of his own journey, and that we can find a new home. Some murmur, unsure. He says we should go north, away from the conflict of the Owners. That we are not owned. This heartens them; they draw closer to us, a new we is formed, a new body, afraid yet willing to go in one accord. There is nothing to take with us, only the clothes on our backs and the boots on our feet. We take one last look at our former home, destitute, barren, devoid of the ardent trees, and we leave.

There are no roads that go north. Only east and west and south. East and west there are lights of other Centers in the distance. North there is only darkness and stars and distant black mountains. We walk north, the sun long gone, the stars our guide as we make the difficult work of traversing the land northward of our former Center; it has not seen human feet within memory of any of us. The earth is uneven, and tugs at our boots, and the tall, uncut grass intwines us, and pulls some of us to our knees. It pulls me to my knees, and he pulls me free, our sweat mingling in the night air from the effort of it. We walk until we cannot. We sleep.

The morning comes, and we see how far we have come. Our center cannot be seen behind us. The sky to the south is streaked with oily smears of smoke, far away. Our legs are sore, and our bellies rumble, but there is nothing but grass and soil and horizons. He orients us north once more, toward the mountains which are still far away, and we march. The land becomes more smooth as we go. Hours pass. Our hunger grows. Ahead, there is a river, cutting through the land like an icy ribbon, splashing the stones of the shore with cool, clear water. We drink. In the water there are moving things, slick and colorful, and a word swims into my mind: fish. He points them out, and tells us to gather long grass. He has us twine it into a great web, and we wade into the river, the fish collecting into it as a wriggling mass. The cooks with us understand, and make a fire, but I do not. Not until he hands us split, sharp stones by the shore, and tells us to cut open the fish. I cannot. I cannot cut the fish. I see the blood the others draw from their fish, and see how they squirm as they do so, they do the work, they kill them. They eat them. I do not sob, but tears are my own river, and I cannot understand why we must eat the fish. I feel my hunger pangs and watch the others eat in silence. He sits down beside me. He smells like blood and ick. He tells me to eat, and I turn away. I cannot. I yearn for pears.

We continue our journey, crossing the river carefully. We are all wet from the chest down, our clothes and boots squelching as we walk north, toward the mountains. As we walk, there is another group in the distance. Slowly, we intersect with them. They, too, wear day labor suits. Some of us talk as we walk. They say they worked with apples until Distribution workers came to them for wood. One of them has dried apple strips on them, and they share them with me. They are stringy, and tart, but it feels good to fill my belly after the hard trek of the last two days. As the sun sets, we can see the horizon to the south is alive with fires, smoke, and bursts of light and distant rumblings. The Owners conflict consumes the earth and air behind us, and we struggle to sleep in the coarse grass as the thunder of their struggle sounds like a distant waterfall. 

The sun rises once more, and my body aches as I rise. The oil stain of the smoky sky to the south is still there. I look at the others around me. Some familiar, some new from the apple Center. I place my hand in my pocket. There is something there, a soggy bit of cloth. I pull it free. It is a sock. I recall the seeds, and carefully withdraw them from the makeshift sack. Of the eight seeds, four are intact; the others have wrinkled or turned sour. I kneel, and place the seeds on a flat stone before me. With gentle hands I arrange them, and as I do, others gather around me. One person from the new group reaches into their own pocket, and slowly places three apple seeds beside my pear seeds. I hear a hushed whisper traveling through the group. Someone from the kitchen crew comes as well, and places ten wheat kernels and nine pear seeds with the others. 

I look at him. He is smiling.

Published by AC Moore

My goal is to one day change the world in the same way Shakespeare did: by infusing the thoughts of the human race with such language and turn-of-phrase that they say them daily, and never even know it was I who wrote it.

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