Empire of Dirt: Chapter 1 (Part 1)

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Chad Rossouw | Gonnema Surrenders at the Castle of Good Hope | 2014 | Waxed Cyanotype

by M Blackman

The small trench he had dug for himself, which had been cool in the day’s heat, was now filled with a freezing dew.  He had been lying there since the ochre sky of dawn and, after a long period of fear, he had fallen into an agitated sleep, a sleep which had lasted for most of the day. At what time exactly rest had come, however, he could not tell. The evanescence of any specific memories of the last weeks had become so much part of his daily forgetting that the failures of his recollection no longer perturbed him.  Waking he brushed from his face the freezing silt which had acted as a cushion against the rocky earth.

He slipped his head up from the trench allowing his eyes to draw just above its parapet.  He knew that he was safe in the dark. They would have gone back to their houses, their towns, their cities, down to where the flat beach sand plains were sheltered by the mountains.  They never searched for men in the fading light – the frigates skirting the horizon with their searchlights roving on the surface of the waters were sufficient for that. But one could not be sure just when they would give up the hunt on the land; dusk was a time where the confusion of light sometimes kept them at the shore – their tall dark figures standing and mumbling to each other in their language.

Although there was no sign or sound of them in the faint orange light of dusk, he lay there shivering for a few minutes more. Then he raised his head cautiously above the bushes, to assure himself that there were no figures moving across the shale of the plains, before he moved towards the sea. He eased himself out of the trench, slipping slowly underneath the dead branches of the bracken and twisted brushwood that surrounded the ditch. He closed his eyes so that their spikes would not blind him.  His face was so scratched from this that it was painful to move his features. But more concerned with chill and hunger than with the pain of the cross-hatching of cuts, that ran across his face, he forced his head through this barbed foliage, furtively moving towards the sea.

He progressed slowly on his haunches, pushing the branches aside with his face and hands, searching for the next obstruction. This he did every night. Pushing himself through the dead foliage he made his way to the sea so that he could feel along the rocky promontory for the shell fish that clung there. His dark thin body – he wore only a dirty white vest and shorts – slipped along the headland that ran from the thicket of dead bracken into the ocean.  This natural jetty of rock, which provided an entry into the small bay before him, was covered in splintered slate shards that cut into his feet as he grappled his way across it.  He clambered across it bent over, half in pain and half in fear of being seen against the land by the men working the frigates in the distance.  Moving slowly, opening and re-tearing the cuts in his feet from the nights before, he found the steps that led down to the lapping swells.  These stairs had been cut from large granite rocks and engineered into the slate that surrounded them.

He sat on the steps – which descended deep into the ocean, far deeper than he could swim down to. There he picked at his cut feet, pulling one large fragment from his hardened sole, more like a razor blade than a piece of stone. He winced and plunged the bleeding foot into the water.  In an attempt to mediate the pain, he slid his hands along the perfectly smooth stone of the step. And if he had had the emotions for feeling anything other than the surging agony that ran up from his foot into his throat he would have smiled at their perfect workmanship.

Those who had made these steps were not known to him – nobody he had ever spoken to knew more than that there was a different people who lived here once.  As a child he had walked on these steps and had climbed up the loosely stoned pathways that these men had left on the mountains.  When he had asked his father about them he told him that he did not know them.  They were men, his father said, with heads of stone, too concerned with entering the sea and crossing the mountains. They were a useless kind of man who did not want to remain in one place, a useless kind of man who used only stone to express their thoughts and deeds.  They were, his father went on to say, no doubt the forebears of those naked men who still lived in the mountains, who had lost their techne and now threw only stone headed spears and placed crude bombs amidst the civic spaces of The Empire.

The ones who knew the craft of stone had left in their ships with no wish to return, his father had said. But whatever they were, he knew that these men were a race of engineers, a race who saw a need to cross the mountains and enter the sea, something he too felt in his heart. But as The Tablet he had grown up with said, these men had no use for monuments, no use for houses to worship their god in and no use for channeling water. The Empire had found this land washed clean, empty of men, empty of infrastructure, empty of any living thing whether land plant or animal.  Of the Stone Age foresters, who had no doubt lived in the tall trees of Kaapsdawn before the climate wars and the caustic rains washed them and their trees into the sea, only their pathways remained.  They had entered their boats, no doubt, when the sick half-living kelp had started growing on the land and the vegetation, poisoned by the rain, had begun to die.

With the pain of his foot beginning to dissipate he slipped, with a soundless dive, into the warm Atlantic. Buffeting the first swells, he moved against the current with powerful strokes, driving into the sea which seemed to part before him as if his skin repelled the water. He moved effortlessly through the waves to the far end of the rocky promontory. There he dived down, his feet momentarily surfacing, at a place that he thought might be the one he had mined some weeks ago, where a thick cluster of mussels had once gathered. His hands searched the rocks at the spot.  Finding nothing his fingers then gripped the crevices and his arms pulled him further below.  Exhaling forcefully through his nose he felt blindly down the slippery crag. There was nothing.

He searched further and further along the rocks, finding only the broken shards of the shells of the ones he had ripped from the rocks in the last few weeks still clinging to their beards. He moved his swollen fingers deliberately along the wall at the same time wincing at the biting pain of the salt in the many small abrasions that covered his body. Finally he pushed out further and with measured strokes he realised that he was nearing the point. He searched there, at the furthest most tip, feeling the strong current, only meters away, surging past him.

There were no mussels anymore, at least not on this side of the outcrop of rock and past the point of this promontory it was too dangerous to swim.  At last, retracing his way back, running his aching hands along the rocks, he found some limpets on the waterline near to the steps. These were more difficult to find in the dark and more difficult to get off the rocks under the water. As he touched them he had felt their grip tighten with the terrifying strength which only the impulse of survival can elicit.  He trod water there, keeping an eye on the shells that were just about visible in the light.  He spat out the lapping waves that slapped up against his face. He waited some two minutes, waiting for them to relax their tightened hold. And then smashing down at them with his palm, forcing the shells downwards, he loosed them, catching them as they slid off the rock.  With each blow he almost screamed with pain as the sharp pointed shells cut into his skin and smashed the bone at the heel of his palm.  He felt weak with exhaustion and pain, but the urge to have something in his stomach was still strong.

He slipped the limpets into his shorts with some relief. But he knew now that he would have to move further down the coast, away from the cover of dead bushes and further towards the danger of The Empire, in order to find a new source of food.  Unwilling to suffer the biting pain of walking on the rocks he swam up to the shore with an annoyance tempered by fear. Struggling through the kelp forest that grew in the sands and rock before the shoreline, he pulled himself towards the beach. The fronds of the seaweed seemed to be grappling with him, pulling at his arms and legs with their warm slimy enticements.  Entangling around the heavy silver ring cast around his wrist, they seemed to be urging him to give up, enjoining him down into the peaceful depths.  He slung them off, keeping his eyes on the line of the white sands of the beach, which were now lit by the pearl-grey of the moon.  Then a strap of kelp twisted around his arm, another took his leg and the vacuum of a trough, between a set of waves, pulled him down. Like a Portuguese man o’war he relinquished himself to the caprices of the waters just as a swell helped to untangle him and lifted him effortlessly up towards the grating shells that the sea kept churning at the shoreline.  Slumped in this mess of breaking shards and broken fronds he lay exhausted for a minute catching his breath, allowing the beaching waves to wash over him. Getting up his legs buckled and then straightened repeatedly as he moved up onto the white sand.  He stumbled through the thicket on the beach’s verge, then onto the rough and fell onto the manufacture grass of the golf course.