Carbon

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BY MARIE BALEO

Thick glass jars. Uneven to the touch and heavy, the height of our tired knees. Washed and dried nightly by large mechanical hands. Watching this always reminds her of something from her childhood, a blurry memory with no discernible edges- the car wash maybe? Those jars, the resources, are filled with food. Sliced or mashed fruit dumped on vegetables, slabs of lean, dry meat covered in rice, more bruised fruit, juices and oil running down the sides of the glass, dripping onto a loaf of bread soon soaked. A comically large, transparent stomach subject to jealous scrutiny.

Human hands hidden beneath thin white gloves seal the lids back onto the jars, give them back to families for their weekly consumption. No more. She understands, but no longer feels, the indignity of her, their situation. Their worthlessness signified by the haste and brutality with which they receive the calibrated dose of food. A purely utilitarian operation: the exact minimal amount of effort, movement, and thought required to keep us and our offspring fed, like cattle.

Later on, she sits in her carriage, conscious of the children lying around her in the straw – a rolling nest, musty and dry. The straw irritates the skin on her ankles, which is scaly and covered in soft, dark hairs. The floor below her is hard and she shifts. The ageing horse has come to a stop, immobile behind another carriage. She sees the back of its occupants’ heads: a bald spot, locks of matted hair, sticky ashes stuck to sticky strands. She remembers a word from the past, a naive word: “comfortable”. She wipes the sweat and grime away from her forehead and onto her apron.

Now she waits. She looks straight ahead, behind the family in the carriage, to the checkpoint. Blocks of concrete, pans of steel and glass, bright lights, cold signs in capital letters, and, out in the open, ten soldiers holding machine guns in their meaty arms. They inspect the three parallel lines, one carriage after another, shoving flashlights into hollowed faces, ordering mouths to be opened, pockets to be turned inside out, children to be awoken. Skirts to be lifted. They bark something she can’t make out, and wave the family’s carriage on. Their horse, a slightly younger but just as sickly version of her own, makes its way laboriously through the open gates and beyond, where the carriage slowly melts into shadow.

It is now her turn. She is preparing for the examination when it comes again.

In a second, every thought, every full sentence she consciously spells out for herself in the silence of her cranial box, suddenly each of those sentences has one word, one out of three, that isn’t there by her design. She looks at the two children, her puppies, toddlers, two or three years old at most and in between her normal thoughts these words appear, slithering: wicked, useless, dead weight, dead, meat.

She doesn’t know how they do it yet. But she knows they do. She looks to her side at the other carriages waiting before the checkpoints, the twitching eyelids, the pudgy forearms, hair running down the side of a face, freckles on a short nose: people, whatever that means now. Do they feel it too? Are their thoughts entered into, violated? Would they know it if that were so?

The armed men look at her with slow blinking eyes of yellow that say “suspicious”. They move both too slowly and too often in ways she can’t identify. Do eyes like these ever look favorably upon anything? Eyes devised to hate. They probably think the children are animals. And she’s an animal too, but a sexual one, tainted by her aloneness, her motherhood, the weight of her skin, her heavy arms, her stout frame. Usable.

Of course, she remembers the genesis of this situation, but only barely, like memories of a dream the morning after.

She remembers standing barefoot in the grass, and it felt like sand paper, there in the back of the building with this person she recalls nothing of except that they’d seemed to her to be some kind of all-knowing guru, a man or woman of such tremendous power that any word they spoke became the truth.

“You burn it. All of it.” He or she motioned to the grass, and now she could see that it had been burned, expertly, scientifically.

“Because when you burn it, they can’t live off of it.”

With this sentence it was as though her mind had granted itself permission to truly look, and now she saw that things had burned that were worth more than grass: she stood in a field clattered in former valuables, things to eat, to weave, use, drink, all charred. Carbonized. The man or woman smiled, their hands clasped before them, fingers twisted, their eyes shining with desire. It’s about the fire, she thought. He or she loves it. He or she is the fire.

“When you burn things here, you create pain and send it out into the world, you put misery into each and everyone of them, and then they spread out and disseminate that dread, so that you think you burned one thing when in reality you burned many more”, he or she said in one voracious breath.

He or she, who had stood with her in the field that day, was one of a new cast: those with a presumption of life. She would, forever, be one of those who could aim no higher than survival. She was one of those who would be expected to beg, while the others calmly waited for them, watching them ride alone in their carriages like nineteenth-century peasants moving through a world now so strange she sometimes felt as though she may just be an observer, and not alive in this life, not when she had been raised wearing clean, ironed clothes, writing carefully in her notebooks, reading tastefully sarcastic novels, sipping tea on quiet Sunday mornings in sun-drenched rooms framed by light white drapes. But she could not remember the previous week of her life, let alone the months, years, that had led up to this, and somehow that felt like a ploy too. Where was her life? What was her life? Who were these children whom she felt nothing for, but brought along everywhere, because she felt that somehow she was being watched for any suspicious glimpse of awareness, and that if she deviated from her role (pauper, mother of two, shit-stained skirts,) they’d know that she knew?

We had made bad of too much liberty, too much power, he or she had said that day. A great debauchery of possibilities. Standing in mile-long supermarket aisles, paralyzed by the staggering number of options we’d created for ourselves, we had become sick from the freedom. What we needed was control, he or she said, their upper lip uncovering a row of round white teeth, she now remembered. What we needed, the teeth went on, was to be reminded that regardless of science or thought, we remained animals, and animals lived and died, and their lives hung on what they consumed. And what we consumed was food. So that when he or she and their acolytes started burning the crops, the orchards, the other animals, they burned our liberty and reclaimed all of our attention, one great plebe once again willing to be subdued and defiled if it meant access to food, which we now understood to have been the only need all along, lost among a sea of wants. Now life was spent queuing for the food and protecting one’s lot from others, and eating it, and digesting it, and shitting it out, and then standing in line again, satiated and slightly ashamed, and then, slowly, slowly, less and less ashamed.


Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Five on the Fifth, Spilled Milk, The Nottingham Review, Jersey Devil Press, Five 2 One Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and more.

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