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Tectonics: A Short Story

Our home shook, slowly, strangely, at first. Then, our home began to sway. Then, everything -- the whole world, the whole universe, the whole everything -- shook.

I didn’t run to my mother, my father, my brother. I heard her screaming -- my name perhaps -- him shouting -- at god, perhaps -- his infant cries -- at nothing, of course -- but I lay still, on my own mat, under my own blanket, on my own side of the room, in fascinated awe of the unexpected violence of the universe.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t die with them in the darkness that followed.

I woke up in the darkness sometimes, I think, but it was difficult to discern what was awake and what was not. At times, I saw an incredible medley of color, places, faces, and the events played out between them, and I knew I was dreaming. At times, I heard rocks and earth shifting and settling, and I felt the dust catching, choking, and filling my throat. For most of the time, there was only darkness, long and still and perfect.

There was an eruption of excited voices, followed by a long patient silence, and the return of the timeless darkness. I felt something brush carefully against my face, on the other side of my blanket, and I moved against it. There was another eruption of excited voices, even louder than before. Movement was everywhere, around and over me, tapping like excited finger tips on the skin of a drum. The staccato rhythm of this unlikely march of fingertips dispersed into a tense silence.

A sharp edge punctured my blanket, catching my cheek. The edge worked carefully and slowly against the blanket’s heavy fibers, and a fresh, warm, and humid air leaked onto my lip, over it and across my teeth, and down into my throat, which turned over itself, and a rough inarticulate syllable escaped. There was another eruption of voices -- this time victorious -- and the weight of the intent that fell upon the earth and clay and debris above me was unmistakable. I would not die. The darkness would not claim me.

Several days later, when the aftershocks seemed to have ceased, the Workers arrived.

Lost in a muted daze, still too weak to help in the search, I slumped against a broken wall around which a hasty shelter had been erected. I had not been physically hurt, but there was little food and water, and my time in the darkness had sapped my strength. My head bobbed and weaved uncontrollably, as if my loose neck could not support its weight, and wherever my gaze fell, it lay empty and hollow and vacant on whatever insignificant detail would help me ignore the larger landscape of death, misery, destruction, and hopelessness.

From the periphery of the grey objectless palette that my world had become, a strange unfamiliar buzz emerged. Distant, I suppose, but, so strange, I couldn't judge if it was near or far. The sound intensified. The sharp intrusion of its wholly unknown otherness forced clarity upon me and, as it came closer, the details of the world around me sharpened. First, a pebble. Then, a patch of dirt. Then, rubble. Then, the sounds of the sick and wounded. At last, the sight and scent of the corpses, cooking in the long hot sun that fell mercilessly straight from far above.

At that moment, when the details of my newly returned existence had coalesced into a sharp clear understanding of what had happened to me, my family, the other families, our village, all at once, a terribly impossible noise shook again my whole world, and an incredible angry machine came to a grinding halt in front of me, belching heat and filth and fumes.

I wasn't frightened by the machine. I wasn't frightened, when strange figures emerged from every end of it, laden with equipment, wearing bulky and unrecognizable clothing, helmets with masks and goggles, and heavy boots. I wasn't frightened, when one of the figures ran towards me, as the others dispersed in all directions, rattling and barking unintelligibly like wild dogs. I wasn't frightened by this intrusion into our world. I wasn't frightened.

As the figure clumsily approached, I wasn't sure if it was barking at me or making noise for noise’s sake because it called from a rude distance, deep in the machine’s ceremony of noise. Then, it crouched too close to me, still barking unintelligibly, and its touch was an impolite intrusion. It thrust a strange vessel towards my lips, and I involuntarily recoiled. It insulted me again by seizing my head and forcing the vessel to my mouth. I experienced no relief, when an eerily clean and pure water touched my lips. Even their water was alien.

Had we not been so broken by the earthquake, and in such desperate need of aid, we would not have been so patient with them.

The Workers, however well-intentioned, were clumsy, ignorant, and reckless. Their language, when they weren't barking unnecessarily, was like a honey mud -- sweet, soft, and opaque. The words were softly indistinguishable and the syntax incoherent.

One or two of them had a rudimentary command of our language, but it only made matters worse. My uncle exercised incredible constraint when one of the Workers referred to the unburied body of his wife -- my aunt, the mother of his children and my cousins -- as meat. Inadvertent or not, some transgressions are almost impossible to ignore.

Violence was avoided in those first few weeks because we were desperate and somewhat confused by them.

It was obvious, for example, that they did not come from the same place and that they were not related to each other. Their faces were all manner of shapes and sizes, the colors of their skin varied, and their hair -- how they wore it, its length, and thickness -- dissimilar. They always seemed uneasy around each other, unnecessarily polite in some situations and unnecessarily quarrelsome in others. They seemed as ignorant of each other’s habits as they were of ours.

They also had a curious manner of organizing themselves. There was a leader, who did very little but bark orders and take credit for the work of others. Beneath him, there was a cascading command structure, whereby those who did the most work had the least amount of input on how the work was to be done. Not surprisingly, we often witnessed blatant acts of insubordination to which the leaders were forced to turn a blind eye.

To their credit, when it came to the dispensation of aid, the Workers demonstrated a basic understanding of the concept of triage. Those most in need of aid most often received attention first, but the Workers’ assessment of who most required need was often perplexing. People who were near death and would surely die very often received undue attention, while those who had easily treated wounds were left to fester and grow more sickly. They often overlooked the fact that some of the wounded and sick had family to tend to them while others did not. Much to our consternation, they also forbade family members from caring for the most severally ill or wounded.

Violence finally erupted between us, as one one might have expected, because of a sexual transgression.

Within the ranks of the Workers, there were men and women and, like us, both sexes worked side by side. Unlike us, however, the Workers seemed to be formally forbidden from developing amongst themselves any kind of romantic or sexual relationships. In many cases, we learned, their true partners had been left in the lands from which they had come. There were, of course, clandestine relationships, which seemed only to stoke the hungry loneliness of the Workers who could not pair off with one of their own. With so many of our grandparents now dead, even a girl as young as I was faced with unsolicited and unwelcome overtures and temptation.

The story of the transgression is familiar and well rehearsed. The details are superfluous.

From that bloody day forward, two unexpected factions emerged. A small minority of the Workers supported our position. They agreed with us that we had been wronged and the punitive force employed by the Workers excessive. To our dismay, many of our unmarried men and women supported the majority of Workers who thought our traditions and our sense of justice was to blame. The fissure deepened when the Workers insisted that we move our village away from the fault line, for its future safety. The dispute fell along predictable lines. We fought each other, as the Workers looked on in dismay.

Several more months passed before the last of the Workers left, taking many of our unmarried men and women with them.

They left behind new homes, new technologies, and a previously unimaginable vacuum in our lives. Families from nearby villages, where a similar story had played out in the aftermath of the earthquake, joined us, but even the arrival of these near kin could not fill the emptiness in our hearts, our families, and our village.

There is hope that some of the many who left will return and the knowledge that most will not. High up in the hills, far from the artificial lights that now drench our evenings, I try to remember our lives as they were before the Workers arrived but instead my heart calls out for the long and still and perfect darkness from which I wish I had never been pulled.


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