1. The Cycle of Life
They stand in pairs, waiting, hands tucked neatly behind their backs. Four rows. Two columns. The males would have been high school football players in their prime, muscled, but now humbled. White threads show through the knees of their identical, brushed denim jeans from actual distressing, not a fashion re-tread. On the way in to the only bookstore in town, stripped of bound paper, re-purposed with metal flooring and exposed florescent lighting, one wrist-bound couple glances quickly around the room. Maybe that was a classmate before the school closed or a neighbor from down the street.
Well-heeled guards enter, single file, walking the perimeter, tapping their steel-tipped canes on the ceramic floor. They laugh when the tiles beneath the kids’ feet warm from yellow to orange, to red, and the heat steals the rubber from their soles.
“Would you look how still they stand,” the chief says, swinging her cane back and forth, right up to their noses. She never hits. The priest said they must be kept unblemished. After the last cycle hardly anything grew in season or ever made it to fruit.
A boy in the back row raises his head and winces. The metal collar, chained to the girl beside him, tugs against his bruised neck. The guard narrows her gaze.
“That one,” she says, pointing squarely at his head.
The couple walks silently off their square, heads low, melted rubber footprints trailing to the door.
* * *
Inside the domed tent ancient images of ochre-stained animals stare down from the cloth roof— long legs, arched backs, some baring teeth. Pale yellow sunlight, weakened with age, shines through their poked-out eyes onto an over-ripened earth. With barely enough room to stretch out their arms, the young pair stand, facing each other.
“Why did you think that would work, giving up so easily?” The girl asks him.
“I know how they think. Resist, but not too much. Isn’t this our chance?”
“Do you think they’re watching now?”
“I doubt it. Otherwise, how could they be confident this works.”
A bell rings. They drop to their knees and dig at the dirt with their fingers. When they’re fist- deep, warm water pours over them from an opening above their heads and pools around the tender sapling between their hands.
He catches his first glimpse of the sky through the tent hole: so blue and pure he nearly cries and then makes his move. She pulls him sharp and close, close enough to steal a whiff.
“I know how this part ends. we’ll never make it like this” she says, tugging at the chain. She digs the toe of her shoe into the soft earth, exposing a blade brighter than anything he’s ever seen before.
“You’ll need to be quick,” she tells him.
“Why are you helping me?”
“Just give me your coat and shoes before you go.”
When the bullhorn sounds they bow at the waist, according to custom. Her hand sweeps the ground with a rehearsed ease. Two twists of the blade and the collars fall from their shoulders. He grabs for the knife and catches the edge, slicing his palm.
“I didn’t do that to you,” she says, throwing the red-tinged metal back into the dirt.
Drumming starts outside, guttural chants. The tent will come down soon.
”You go first,” she says. “Out the back. Don’t forget the shoes and coat. They already have your scent.”
He holds on her eyes, looking for a trust too readily given. The boy bolts, bare feet slapping the stone walkway as it curves towards the tree line. He does not look back. After twenty strides his calf muscles cramp. His joints seize. An electric shock singes the ground up to his thighs.
They never make it past the first turn, not the simple ones, not the young ones, not even the strongest among them. At least she’s warm now. Her shoes wedge tightly inside his. Double the melted rubber should protect her for next time. That counts for something. Giving him false hope, too. It’s a certain kind of grace. That and a good death is about as much as you could ask for. The soil must be fed and the saplings should grow faster with his sacrifice.
2. A Folder’s Lament
I don’t like cramped spaces. I once spent three days wedged between floorboards and caustic insulation. That might not sound like a lot. Hardly a record. Hardly worth mentioning considering the others hip-high in water, skin puckered with rot, or wasting in the cistern where the sewage leaks. I had it easy. Warm, but itchy. There was even some light.
The first few hours were the hardest, especially when someone came looking for me. They’d stand on the floor, right above my face, and wait. Sometimes there’d be an argument. I could hear them yelling. “You knew it was her time. There’s no use hiding her. We’ll find her one way or the other. Even your old, tired blood stains red.”
My breath dropped low, deep into the well of my belly. That’s when I knew I could truly fold.
The technique is simple. Wedge both forearms behind the back, right under left. Cross the ankles, bend at the waist, and bring your knees up to your chest. Some people like turning their head to the side. I prefer looking straight ahead. It helps to learn while the muscles are limber. I was taught a little earlier than the others. A year or two later and the lessons would have been excruciating.
“Joints were made to be broken,” the tutor said every day as the straps were tightened. Sounds almost funny now, if not cruel. Really it’s the ligaments that stretch and the bones just follow. Nothing really breaks.
Part of me wanted to escape, of course. But how could I leave what I’d just gotten to know? I learned a lot staring up through that narrow gap of knotty pine. People wear their souls on their shoes. Soft, worn rubber—mostly kind words. Hard, new heels—they had no remorse.
After a couple of days under the floorboards the world cracked open and I could see broad daylight again. I thought I had failed. My grandfather’s fingertips were bloody from ripping at the nails. He motioned to keep quiet as he untied the straps and carried me in his arms until his face winced with a pain I knew, but had overcome. We left, heading towards the edge of town. He kept pointing to the trees and said in heaving, accented words, “avoid the tent and rock-a-ways.”
He told me as he dropped me off at the edge the woods, remember, we fold because we never bow. You learned the skill, now teach it to your children. Even if it seems like better days.
The ceremonial bell rang. I folded first between two moss-covered boulders beyond the ferns. No one caught me there. A boy, barefoot, blood trickling down his arm and nearly naked, ran across the field and almost made it through. He didn’t clear the circle—he didn’t know how to fold. Otherwise, why would he ever need to run. They say the soil will grow stronger for his sacrifice.
I can still hear my grandfather’s voice in the rocks as they crack and splinter on the ledge below. A bird I’ve never seen before rides thermoclines in the valley: peaceful, arcing circles as it eyes its next meal. Wind rushes the crack as it passes. It was supposed to be my offering time. All of us, silent in this cliff face, we will always know how to fold.
3. Sports for Lazy Sundays
A plume of smoke rises out of the only chimney in town. Everyone gathers in the street and waits with their backs against the midday sun. When the smoke turns from blue to white a small cheer erupts. They wait again until a gong rings, deep and low, then turn, nearly in unison. Two-by-two they go down the narrow cobblestone pathway and under the archway to the proving grounds. There’s order, an odd calm.
A single, round-walled tent, painted in dried, ochre clay, has gone up in the center of a grassy field. A stray cow lowers its head to eat the grass, sniffs a few times, and stops. A child hits its boney hide with a stick until the field is clear. The old, the middle-aged, and the very young suddenly press up against the wooden fence, eager for a show.
Another cheer erupts from the crowd as two teenagers, shackled at the neck, walk slowly to the tent. They don’t wave or smile as phones flash. One woman cries out a name. Then another. Still no recognition. The pair lift the flap, bow at the waist, and disappear inside.
A group of village elders appears at the far side of the field. They carry drums of varying sizes — small round cylinders covered in taut animal skin, carved-out logs, a metal drum kit complete with cymbals. They sit in a circle and begin a rhythmic beating. Those on the fence-line with the metal-tipped boots beat their canes against the rough-hewed wood. People, three rows deep, fidget and kick the sterile dirt beneath their feet.
The priest, her black-robe embroidered with the clan’s symbol—a small seedling breaking through parched soil, climbs a shaky aluminum ladder next to the tent. Most days she’s the baker who runs this town along with the local barista—everyone depends on a warm muffin and coffee first thing in the morning. Her hem gets caught on the first rung as she climbs. An apprentice with top-knot hair, pants two-inches cuffed, runs over and frees her garment. He waits at the foot of the ladder for the nod, then passes a bucket up to her. She quickly empties the triple-filtered, spring-fed water, warmed by hand-hewn cardboard bricks, into a hole in the top.
A fidgety restlessness spreads through the crowd. Somehow they all have to go to the bathroom at the same time. They wait, arms outstretched, cellphones high above their heads and ready to record.
A collective gasp surfaces as a barefoot young man, no jacket or shoes, sprints from the back flap of the tent. They’ve never seen this before. He leaves the circular path and heads straight towards the tree line. It’s a good run, eyes fixed, arms pumping, a long, steady gait. Thighs propel more than lift like a deer sprinting over a fence. He never looks back.
About three, four rows into the crowd someone starts to cheer, “Go, go, go-go-go.” The chanting rises in a wave of frenzied voices. An older, bearded man, his fingertips raw, throws his hand up in a fist. The metal tips look back and glare. One of them tries to get a good look at his face. The crowd closes in around him, obscuring her line of sight. The chanting drops off. Several kids turn around and snap selfies with the running boy in full stride. “That’s a good one,” a baby banker says to his friend. “Send me that one, will ya?”
“Already did bro. Already did.”
Movement from the tree line catches an eye in the crowd. “Look, there, in the forest.” A hand waves from a tight crack between two boulders. The running boy doesn’t notice. He’s stopped, cramped over, gasping for breath. When his legs seize up and the spasm grips his torso the crowd exhales a disappointed sigh. Electric sparks arc from the ground up to his thighs, downing him in one explosive rage. The drumming ends.
“This is getting tiring,” says a middle-aged woman coated in rough fabric edged in fur. “If no one ever makes it past the first circle, what’s the sport in that?” The old man next to her asks, “Isn’t your daughter giving age? She’s a fighter, too. Just what the priest demands.” The woman doesn’t respond, except to step aside, raise her hand and point down at him, hoping to get a guard’s attention. They’ve already left. It was the spectacle they’d come to enjoy.
As the crowd disperses, unraveling in groups of two or three, the old man says “we never needed rituals.”
“That’s blasphemy,” the woman yells. “He’s blasphemed.”
“You tell me then, why do you think this works?”
“With sacrifice anything is possible,” she says, snapping a picture of his face.
“That’s not how science works.”
* * *
After an hour, a sharp-beaked bird arcs through the air, circling up from the canyon beyond the trees. Black eyes narrow to the body below. A girl emerges from the tent and watches the feeding. She sends her thoughts and prayers to his family, but the soil never grows.
An earlier version of this short story first appeared in Tilde Literary Journal