chain gang

“Excuse me, but do you have a drop of water?”

“Eh? Sorry? Sod off mate. Got work to do here.”

“Please sir, just a drop. I’m begging….”

“Now look here, you. If I’m caught talking to you, it’ll be both our heads. Now sod the hell off!” He shoved the stranger away and turned back to his work.

The stranger picked up his pickaxe and walked back over to his side. His shadow pierced the ground like a jack knife left swaying in the breeze. He lifted the pick and brought it shuddering down, barely chipping away at the boulder. He bent double to examine his work, frowned, straightened. Again the pick met its mark, scattering slate chips among the dust.

The other man watched the fruitless swings with curiosity. “To each his own, I suppose,” he said to himself. He scanned the pile before him with a trained eye. A mid-sized stone had tumbled to the side. He bent his knees, cradled his arms around the uneven sides. With a heaving sigh he lifted it up, his tanned arms flexing elegantly in the sun. His feet stepped forward, feeling the uneven rubble beneath. Even in his sleep he walked those twenty paces–day after day, moment after moment, an eternity measured twenty step increments.

The stranger leaned his gangly body on the pick axe, watching his companion’s impressive strength and sureness of foot. “Eh, Yup!” He called. “Mighty fine, then! Mighty fine.”

The strong man nodded in answer. 18… 19… 20. He dropped the rock with a thud. Sweat dripped down his brow in glistening rivers. He drew the bandana from his back pocket and patted his face dry.

“My my, this sho would be easier without those,” the thin man said, pointing to his wrists and ankles. The strong man shrugged. He tossed the excess length of chain over his shoulder and walked the 20 steps back to his own pile.

The stranger lifted his pick again and brought it swiftly down, embedding it deep into the boulder. It cracked in three places. He smiled triumphantly, shaking chained fists towards the blazing sun. He picked up each piece easily, walking his 20 steps and tossing first one, then another, then a third onto the waiting pile, looking mighty pleased with himself. Mighty pleased indeed. The stronger man grunted, a low rumbling sound that could have been mistaken for a laugh. Or a hurricane.

“Hey, man, you know, you could probably ask for a pickaxe, too, iffn you wanted one,” the stranger shouted. “Hey, how ’bout it! Try and get some water, too, while you’re at it. It’s hott’r th’n hells out here, you know?”

He shook his head and crouched to pick up another rock, lighter but much taller than the last. He knew the steps by heart and had no need for eyes. Besides, the stone shielded him from the sun’s blazing wrath, at least for a moment. He closed his eyes, stepped cautiously forward, the sound of the stranger’s pickaxe directing him. He reached the spot and hefted the stone down. It landed on the sharp edge of another, cracking it clean in two.

“Hey thanks, brother! Saves me a lot of effort. You know, you’re not half bad. A little stoic, maybe, not the world’s greatest conversationalist. But hey! All work and no play, I imagine.”

The strong man heaved his broad chest in mirthless laughter. “And what, pray tell, do you suppose there is to do for fun, stranger, hmmm?” He shook his shackled fists at the man. We are prisoners! Not playmates, not friends, not brothers. Prisoners.”

“I suppose you’re right. But hey! Better chained in pairs than alone, am I right? Look.” The thin man bent and picked up the first half of the stone his companion had just split and carried it easily back to the other pile. He returned with the second, stacking it neatly on top of the first. “Team work!”

“Insufferable,” the strong man muttered.

“Suit yourself.”

Each turned in silence to his own work. The tinkering of the stranger’s axe rang out in sharp staccato accenting the echoing bass of boulders as they rumbled and crashed to the ground. The sun sailed easily across the infinite blue, and shadows grew long across the barren landscape. The two sagged into the shadows, daring to rest in the moments before the day fled.

The thin man drew a bottle from his hip, shook it.

“Whassat?” The strong man asked, his face weary from toil.

“Oh, just cleaning up. Almost time, now,” he said. He clambered up to the top of the rock heap, uncorked the bottle and tilted it over the great boulders. The clear stream of water glinted merrily in the sunlight as it splashed over the stones. “I do love how they glisten so.”

“Ay,” said the strong man. “Though not for long.” He nodded to the setting sun.

“Shame. What a terrible shame.” He hooked the bottle back onto his belt and slid back down to stand with his companion. The strong man drew his handkerchief and passed it to the stranger. He took it graciously, mopping his brow with the dignity of a gentleman in finer circumstances.

“Don’t worry.”

“Hmm? ’bout what?”

“You’re new at this is all. It gets easier. Every day it gets easier.”

“Oh, yes.” He passed the ‘kerchief back, pale with exhaustion.

“It’s just, I can see your hands shaking. I wanted you to know, it gets easier. In case you were worried ‘s all.”

The stranger looked at his companion, his weathered skin baking in the setting sun, his every muscle outlined in dirt and sweat. One day, he imagined, he would look the same–hardened by the sun and the work, the two as alike as twin sides of a coin. He sighed, drawing an arm across his forhead, his chains clanging loudly.

“Oh! I almost forgot,” The strong man said, patting his pockets. “Where did I… oh yes! Here we are.” He lifted a key from his back pocket and tossed it to the stranger. The thin man unlocked the shackles and tossed them over his right shoulder.

“Bless you,” he said.

“Go on. Get out of here.”

“Same time tomorrow, then?”

“Same time, same place.”

The strong man unshackled his own chains. He held his hand out to the thin man. They shook like brothers.

“Remember,” he said, catching the stranger in the eye. “It gets easier.”

They parted in opposite directions, their shadows fading gracefully into the darkness as the sun disappeared behind a ridge.