~~This is the job I hate. Grave digging. Most people have learned not to think about it too much. Every time I see the bodies, it always strikes me how young they are. They’re my age, some younger still and then, worst of all, there are the infants. At least, that’s what it was like many years ago, until you train yourself not to look, to do the job without seeing the faces there’s always a terrifying chance you might recognise. To avoid the accusing eyes of those dead while you live, probably at their expense because the way things work in the camp you have to be selfish. There’s not enough of anything so the weak ones get picked off quick. Then the ones left are the ones with the will to survive, and the ability. We’re the ones who’ll fight and that competition makes us stronger. The ones who can’t work get killed and the ones who can get trained up by this ruthless selection process. It’s a cold logic.
I try to work like a machine. To me it seems the only possible way to complete the task. Any human being wouldn’t be able to bear it. This is a job I never take short-cuts with. I’ve never once dug a shallow grave as some people do to speed up the work. The circumstances of both their life and their death have already suffered enough indignity. To the guards urging us to get through the loads faster, these aren’t human, they are simply inefficient. When I see our own rushing carelessly to get it over with it seems to me they are acting like the efficient. We will be buried in exactly the same way by the stronger ones who outlive us. How can we expect to be seen as human when it’s we, our generation, who are treating our own side like scum to keep the efficient happy? Why is everyone always so busy rubbing each other up the wrong way to remember who the enemy really is?
Anna’s clearly finding the death as hard to come to terms with as me. When I help her today it’s different. No jokes, no sarcasm, no teasing and definitely no flirting. Today it’s serious. It’s also different because today she’s helping me as much as I’m helping her. Physically it’s me doing extra digging, looking down at more empty faces lifting more too light burdens which sag in my arms reminding me of the weakness of the human frame. Even the strong can snap easily. She’s helping me though, this is the first time I’ve ever felt like another person understands the way I feel. She is the only person who can support me because she’s the only person who sees any need for support. The rest of the workers have taught themselves to take it for granted and accept it. I don’t judge them. That’s their coping strategy.
As I lay a frail girl onto the damp mud, I see the tear form and Anna try to wipe it away quickly, before anyone notices. I admire her more for crying. A life has ended after just five, maybe six years. That’s the faintest taste of life, fading before it’s experienced. Quite simply, that’s wrong. So no, I don’t think she’s weak. I think she’s human. I believe that the biggest difference between people and animals is compassion.
Squeezing her hand I silently explain my pain. Although we’ve hardly exchanged a word all day, I feel far closer to her. Then again words only bring you closer to people if you say what you really feel and that virtually never happens. Silence is a more honest way to communicate. However, the one sentence Anna does whisper to me was surprisingly unguarded.
“I can’t stand being reminded of how mortal we all are.”
I’m amazed how in one simple sentence she’s explained all the feelings I’ve struggled so long to understand. As much as I agree, I have to contradict her, I can’t stand how vulnerable the realisation that I am seeing my own future makes me feel. Turning to face her I put one hand on her shoulder and use the other to bring her eyes in line with mine. As I stare at those wide, lost eyes I speak as though I am reassuring her when I am really reassuring myself.
“Perhaps we need that reminder. It is inspiration to live a better life and to fight as hard as we can while we have breath left in our bodies to keep up that fight.” She looks more convinced than I feel. We hug. I’m not sure if it was me who pulled her closer or her who buried folded herself neatly into my arms. It happened. And it felt really good. As she clung to me I realised that she’s only seen the tough act, I’ve not been particularly open with her. She’d opened up to me and it somehow made me feel as though I owed her a piece of the truth. Not my life story but she deserves to know that I am as vulnerable as she is. That I too am afraid.
“Anna, thank you so much, I needed your support.” Although she looked slightly surprised, she didn’t say anything. I think she was aware she’d made some sort of break through and didn’t want to spoil the moment.
The further we walked away from the fresh graves, the more the mood lightened. The new closeness between us remained exactly the same. It’s hard for me to say this but I think I’m glad.
Strolling across the fields, the sun finishing its course in the sky and after a long full day giving out a peaceful glow, I decide I agree with the sun. I can finish today content, satisfied.
Anna didn’t say anything while we walked. Right before we came down off the field onto the main track she said one last thing. A confession I did not expect.
“Don’t you think it’s funny to see so much beauty in such an ugly place? I’ve come to a prison and been set free. I have never felt this free before. At least this prison I entered by choice, my last prison I was forced in by ignorance.” It would have been stupid to ask questions. If she was going to tell me any more she’s have said it.
I’d not really noticed how slowly we’d been walking or even been away of the rest of the team sliding further and further away. When we got into the sleeping hall, I wasn’t prepared for the questions and raised eyebrows. Not realising I was late back, I’d not made any excuses. I went to wash but Anna was so exhausted that she went straight to bed. That’s a definite change, I can’t imagine the Anna we first met considering getting into bed with even half that much muck on her.
By the time I came back in, most people, including Casper were asleep. It bothered me Casper’d slept before I could talk to him. His bed is far enough from Anna that I could have explained myself and assured him I’m not trying to steal her from him. He was gutted when she was put in my work group not his and lately I worry he’s starting to see me as a threat.
I can’t help it, I watch over Anna, half protectively and half because I want to. A part of me is guilty, a part of me points out this is betraying Casper. Another part of me points out I must be mad and reminds me of all her failings and all the reasons I used to find her so irritating. The rest of me adores her. The rest of me is mesmerised beyond reason. She turns over onto her opposite side so that she’s facing me. Her eyes are still wide open and she fidgets about, uncomfortable on the hard damp floor. She sits up. Then she lies back down. Then she sits up again.
“Hey, get some sleep or I’m going to be digging a lot of potatoes tomorrow.” I expect her to argue because that’s what she always does. Instead she rolls over and stays as still as is possible on the bumpy ground. I listen as her breathing gets heavier and then becomes a snore. Ha, I bet she’d kill me if I told her she snores. Even though it is a cute snore.
Unfortunately Casper wasn’t actually asleep. He sits up and drags his sleeping bag over to me, not looking particularly impresses.
“You came back late,” he hisses. I don’t like what his look implies.
“She’d had a trying day. I was taking care of someone who’s clearly very precious to you. I that a problem?”
“It is if she’s precious to you. What was that about potatoes?” Even if I did have feelings for her (which I don’t) I wouldn’t let it destroy my relationship with Casper. It’s unbearable to have my best friend suspicious of me. It’s even more unbearable fearing his suspicions could be true.
“Casper, whatever happens I’m sticking with you. No girl’s more important to me than our friendship. And seriously? You’re worried about us potatoe digging together? Like that’s the most romantic activity on earth. Of course any girl would fall for the sweaty girl she digs potatoes with.”
“Wow Roebai, that was really sweet. I’m sort of scared.” We laughed for the first time in days and it was refreshing to have our old free and easy relationship back. It’s true what I said to him, not just a load of rubbish to shut him up. I’m not a likeable person. The fact our friendship has lasted so long is a miracle and I don’t expect two miracles. No woman could put up with me as well or as long as Casper.
“Hey Roebai, get some sleep because you’re going to have a lot of potatoes to dig tomorrow,” he says sarcastically mimicking me and doing these big, soppy eyes.
“Shut up.” I shove him. We both laugh too loud and receive the most disapproving looks.