Sunday, October 18, 2020

Not Zen 200: A Sum of Evils

Glantz Island, McConnolley, Wikimedia
The gang worker punched Daveed as he stepped off the ship. A second punch, aimed at his head, knocked him to the ground. He lay in the dirt, which was really a porous rock made of compressed black and grey pebbles, and he waited for the beating to continue. It didn't.

“Get up. Move on,” someone yelled. He did.

Daveed rose as the man behind him stepped off the gangplank and got punched. The fellow grunted but didn't fall. They had all been beaten worse aboard the ship. Apparently, the foreman for the job felt the need to hit each worker as he arrived. Daveed thought his arms would get tired that way.

“Here.” The next man on shore, as strong as the foreman but better dressed because his shirt was cleaner, thrust the handle of a shovel at Daveed.

Daveed glanced to either side as he brushed grit off of his hands. To his left, other captured men, many of whom he recognized from his village like Nissim or Anish, labored in a row of nine. Each man had a pickaxe, shovel, or two wheelbarrows. They seemed to be chopping up the ground and carting it away. Beyond them lay the island itself, a mound of grey soil with a few rises adorned by bushes and scrub grass. It was not possible to see across the main hill but Daveed could see the curve of a rocky shore to the west and possibly a flat beach to the east. 

To the east, his right, there was a teenager, Joseph. Daveed had gotten to know the young fellow during their voyage in the holds of the ship. Joseph held the haft of a pickaxe in both hands. Its iron head had dropped to the ground, seemingly too heavy for him for him to hold aloft.

“Go to that one,” said the equipment man. He pointed to Joseph. “He is your partner. You will
start the new line.”

Daveed didn't ask questions. He accepted his shovel. He stood in place as the foreman and his assistants formed a new work gang from the arrivals stepping down from the ship. It took ten minutes. Everyone got a wooden or steel tool, cheap but functional. The ones with barrows got two, one stacked on top of the other. That seemed mysterious but he trusted that the reason would become apparent.

“I hired on for bookkeeping,” Joseph protested. He should have known that was a lie from the way he had been treated during the sea voyage. “Where is my cousin?”

The gang chief had finished assembling the crew, so he strode forward and punched Joseph. Unlike the greeter, his arm was not tired. Joseph's head snapped to the side. His knees buckled. A second later, he cried as if his eye had been cut. His left hand covered his face. He dropped his pickaxe.

“Probably dead, your cousin. You will be, too, if you don't march.” The man in the almost-clean shirt gave the fallen Joseph a nudge on the shoulder with his boot. “Rise. Head that way. I will show you the job.”

The men in Daveed's work crew exchanged glances. No one seemed inclined to protest after the examples that had been made. Joseph, the former bookkeeper, managed to rise, although he was unsteady. Head down, he glanced up at the chief as if he wanted to say something. Instead, he grabbed the wooden handle of his pick and dragged it behind him as he started to move. The chief quickened his stride and led the way. He spoke as they traveled.

“The grainy soil under your shoes is gold,” he said. “Farmers pay big money for it.”

“It's guano,” replied a voice at the back of the line, someone who knew the difference, probably
a farmhand.

“Bird poop, mostly, and some bat poop, layers of it, centuries of it. It's worth more than gold.” The chief shook his head. “The guano is at least five meters thick in this part of the island. You will dig it with the picks, fill the carts with the shovels, and run the carts back to the dock.”

The ship had arrived in port in mid-afternoon, which had led to yelling between the captain and the foreman. Now Daveed understood that their anger had been due to the timing, which meant part of a workday would be lost. He was grateful for it because he understood his predicament. Soon he saw, too, that it was a blessing to have Joseph as a partner. The thin, young man could barely lift his pickaxe.

Joseph begged the gang chief for a different tool but the chief refused. So Daveed had more time to fill the wheelbarrows. Gaurav, their third partner, ran one barrow to the ship while Daveed filled the other.

Gaurav, too, seemed grateful for the lesser pace.

“As long as we don't have to switch jobs,” Gaurav murmured one time as he traded wheelbarrows and waited for Daveed to finish. “I can do this.”

By evening, Daveed knew it couldn't last. He could see twenty-one lines of nine men on the plains of the island. In one of those lines, maybe ninety meters distant, a man had started to cough amidst a cloud of grey smoke. He fell to his knees, wheezing. The nearest head lineman screamed at him. He bellowed at the rest of the laborers to keep working. He pushed aside the fallen man's friend. Then the headman, after seeing the problem continue, grabbed a shovel and smashed the asthmatic man's head. He struck and struck again until the man stopped moving. He made a carter run the body to the sea and dump it.

“Everyone keep working,” shouted Daveed's head man. “Stop looking at the other lines.”

“What was wrong with that man?” It was the voice of the former farmhand.

“Don't worry about it." The lineman chopped the air with the blade of his hand. "Mold, probably, and allergies. If you are a faker, don't think about faking illness here."

"I don't think he was faking."

"Yes, well, they are terrible workers, the ones who wheeze in this dust. The foremen tell the head linemen not to tolerate them.” 

“In time, what we are digging will affect everyone. Did you hear how badly the veterans workers breathe? They are all getting problems.”

The lineman did not reply. He turned to Joseph, who had paused. The teenager noticed and, not wanting to be hit again, he resumed his inconsistent pick-axing of the soil.

That night, the crew of nine marched about a kilometer into a squat, wooden house with the other work gangs. The foremen shoved all of the laborers into a pen together and locked the doors from the outside. Inside, there stood eight tables stacked with of canned, cold beans. Daveed saw how it would work immediately. Men began push. They grabbed whatever they saw. In less than a minute, the biggest men had started fights over the food. Daveed was able to get one of the can openers and a can but he didn't open his food until the fights stopped. Some men had ended up with armfuls of food but no openers. Daveed bargained with one of those for an extra can in return for opening six of his otherwise useless cans.

While he ate, Daveed talked with the men he knew from his village. Some had gotten no food and no implements, so Daveed bargained for their sakes with the fighters who had won many things. As an experienced laborer told them, supervisors would come with weapons in the morning to take everything anyway, so there was no point in saving. No one would be permitted to establish a food reserve lest they plan to escape.

“You are being very kind to share your dinner,” said a voice he recognized. He had been listening for it but he had doubted that the fellow behind it still lived. “Would you spare any for your uncle?”

“You wrote to me that the work was fine.” He poured cold beans and sugar paste into his mouth. He chewed for a moment. “You said you were in a paradise.”

“What can I tell you?” His uncle Samson, much thinner and dirtier than Daveed could have ever imagined him to be, sat in the guano soil next to Daveed. “They have some guns, here. They put one to my head and told me to write. I wrote.”

“Of all of the evils being done, your letter was the worst.”

Samson slumped. He had always been a strict, demanding man. He had compelled Daveed to learn sports. He had insisted that his sister's children go to school, even the girl. He had always seemed as invulnerable as a force of nature. Of course, he had usually been in debt due to his desire to dress like an upper-class business owner.

“There is so much bad here, so much death." His voice rasped. He shook his head. "I am not the worst. You would not say that if you saw the killings. And you will see. No one leaves alive.”

“If you knew that, why did you lure me here?”

The older fellow shrugged.

“I told myself that you wouldn't get the letter. Or wouldn't read it. Or wouldn't believe it. All of those things. Just like the men on the ship that brought me. I heard them tell themselves, and me, that it wouldn't be so bad. Soon, they expected to start bringing men back.”

“Then they have never done it. They never will.”

“My foreman also has a reason to justify his evil and his killings of the weak. The sailors obeyed terrible orders from their captain rather than risk slavery themselves. The captain obeys evil orders from a rich man who controls many captains.”

“So, it is all due to that one man?”

“No, that is not how it works. The rich man understands that he is doing bad things but feels no choice because other rich people will reduce him to poverty if he does not. Those other rich men do not even see the evil they encourage but know about it distantly, in an abstract way. They compete with other wealthy men and are not willing to stop, all of them separated from the evils that they cause, each committing only the smallest of moral crimes, nothing illegal. Yet they each start a chain of evil acts that lead to the kidnapping and enslavement of other men.”

“All due to rich men, then.”

“Farmers buy this fertilizer. I'm sure that they suspect the evils that are being done here. Yet they pay for it, hundreds of thousands of them.” His shoulders heaved. “Will you share your food? In the morning, I got none. I am dying. I must have food.”

Daveed was reluctant to share anything with the man who had led him into this disaster. It must have showed. The village men who knew them moved away. His uncle frowned and leaned closer.

“If you share food, please, I will share with you my secret. Because you are my blood.”

“I do not care about secrets any longer.” In the end, he gave food to his uncle out of pity. But in the middle of the night, his uncle woke him. Although they spoke no words, Daveed understood that this must be the time of the revealing.

His uncle had chosen the southwest corner of the hut for his bed. It was a corner that had been mostly swept clean of pebbles. Without a sound, he crept to the wall boards. Daveed followed. His uncle pressed their hands against a wall to show that it was solid. Then he knelt and removed a board from the base of the hut. Like a magician performing a trick, he pulled a support beam from deep in the layers of guano. Someone, years ago, had built a previous hut. The remains of it lay where their current captors had built this structure.

The board hid an underground hole, a slightly darker black than the inside of the workhouse. Daveed and his uncle wiggled through the hole and came out in a bush a few meters from the hut.

“You see?” his uncle whispered. He extended a hand to lift up his nephew.

“Shhh.” Daveed expected to be shot.

“No, there are no guards. Because all of us laborers, we are locked in. Come, this is not the secret. There is more.”

His uncle had pushed a piece of wood in front of him as he escaped the hut. He continued to carry it. For almost a kilometer, they hiked in the dark. Birds that were roosting on the path squawked. They shuffled aside to avoid the humans. Daveed helped his uncle carry the plank, which grew heavy over time or at least grew more awkward. It was taller than either of them. Finally, his uncle stepped into a grove of bushes. He moved his arms from one side to the next.

The mound of vegetation parted to reveal a raft. It was twice as big as a person but, to Daveed’s eye, it was not seaworthy to hold anyone. The structure was only most of a raft.

“I did not build this,” his uncle admitted with a tilt of his head. “I'm not good at such things.”

“Who did?”

“A man they killed. I watched him gather wood each night from my place in the corner of the hut. I saw him escape and come back. It was so dark, I couldn't figure out who he was. After a few weeks, I thought I knew. I approached the fellow and begged to give up my sleep for him, to give him my labor. He refused. I didn't blame him. Anyway, when I couldn't sleep, I helped him dig out a log or two so that he could carry them off. You know, I was hoping he might change his mind about me.”

“How did he die?”

“Someone else saw us. They reported on him and on another man, one who looked a bit like me. The guards executed them right away. After, they searched for the raft.”

Daveed let out a bitter laugh. “That was done in the wrong order.”

“Yes, and I am grateful. I knew that they did not find the raft. They did not even look for the buried wood, only inches under the ground. They cursed about it for many days. But I could not go searching for the raft while the man who informed was still alive. They promoted that one to be a gang chief.”

“He lives?”

“They sent him to the shack with head linemen. That meant that I could sneak out if I could be careful. I had figured out the trick of the hidden, old hut timbers and the hole my friend had dug. I knew I could go try to find this raft that must exist. I spent half an hour each night, no more. One night, while I was looking, I saw another man in the darkness near the shore. He was doing more than looking. He had found the raft. As he swept aside the plants that disguise it, I hit that man in the head with a wooden beam. A few seconds later, in the moonlight, I saw his face. It was the man who had informed. So I finished him. I put his body into the sea.”

That night, only a minute after he had confessed to murder, his uncle tried to show Daveed how to lash a stick to the raft. Daveed knew more about making ropes from grass and sedge than Samson did. It was Daveed who did the teaching. The lesson lasted no longer than half an hour.

“Because we must rest,” his uncle explained. “We must live. Or else this is all no good.”

By day, Daveed shoveled soil and he tilled it, too, after his line boss gave in and let Daveed switch places with Joseph. Both of them promised Gaurav that they would not require the wheelbarrow to work much faster. Their boss would be satisfied if they kept an average pace. Near the end of the first day during which he didn't have to wield the pickaxe, Joseph began to cry. Daveed understood that they were tears of relief. The other men were harsh about it, however, and the head lineman beat Joseph for crying.

After that, though, they all settled into a pattern. Daveed tilled the soil and came home exhausted every day. He ate from cans of random, salvaged food at night, things that had been stolen from the shipments that were being used to conceal human trafficking. Each night, Daveed woke to a shove from his uncle and, every time, they would quietly dig out a slab of wood, or carry the wood, or make reed ropes, or lash a piece to the raft.

For three weeks, they built. The missing sleep and bad food did not agree with Samson, who kept getting thinner. He complained about his stomach. Each morning, he spent extra time in the outhouse. When a new group of forced laborers arrived, he complained about them, too. They spoke in a different language and had names like Da, Awut, Phala, and Cham. Their group stayed mostly to themselves but, in honest appraisal, Daveed saw that his group of villagers did, too. Despite the physical distance between them, his uncle lived in fear that one of the strange men would notice their work at night and turn them in.

“I'm worried,” said Samson one night as they lay down to rest. “There is a fellow in my work gang who is making comments to me. He knows something. Or he suspects something.”

“They buried the old foreman today.” Daveed had been thinking about it. They seemed to bury a different man each week. A foreman, chief over even the head linemen, was unusual. “Tied some rocks to him and tossed him into the sea.”

“I know, I know. Are you listening? We have a problem.” 

Daveed thought back on the words. He shook his head. 

“The raft isn't big enough for two people yet,” he concluded.

“One of us will have to hang on the side.”

It would have to be Daveed. The problem was, he barely knew how to swim. Yet he knew his uncle would never make it. Any escape trip would take them four kilometers to the next island east, eight or more to the south. 

He touched his forehead as he envisioned clinging to a rope. “I can do that.”

“Can you swim?”

“You taught me.”

“When you were eight? Maybe.” His uncle sounded doubtful. “The previous barracks and one of the other buildings show us that this guano mining has been going on for ten, maybe fifteen years. It has always ended in death for the workers. But not for you and me, Daveed. It won't end that way for us.”

That night, when they woke to build more of the raft, they found that there was another man between them and the underground hole. In the darkness, they couldn't tell who it was but the figure moved to keep them from leaving. All three of them shuffled back and forth. No one could start a fight without waking the workhouse. The fact that the stranger didn’t do that meant he would try blackmail in the morning, probably. But it was possible that instead he would try to turn them in for a reward that came only to him. Maybe he stayed quiet so he didn't have to share his benefits with the other workmen.

For the last hours of darkness, Daveed crept back to his sleeping spot but he couldn't rest. He wondered about the men who had been shot for this before, what they had felt. He knew it had been quick but he hoped it had been dignified as well, that there had been no ritual torture, just a bullet.

In the morning, his uncle woke early and complained, as usual, of a bad stomach. He trotted to the outhouse.

Afterwards, a head lineman in a blue shirt approached Daveed. He said, “I think your uncle is in trouble.”

Daveed did not know how to respond. This was a man who his uncle had identified as a killer.

“He may need to flee for his life. I overheard men speaking.”

“My uncle is weak. It is a small island.”

“You are a good, young man. You have not tried to make friends with the dangerous ones, the security officers. So you don't know that they have only one boat left with a working engine. We used it to catch a man who tried to swim to freedom last week. It is nearly out of gas. The officers will be afraid to go far in it.”

“So a swimmer might escape.” Daveed did not want to reveal too much.

The lineman turned and walked away to the south. A moment later, a group of men strode out of the warehouse to the west, where the security officers lived. They marched past the outhouses, where Samson hid. In the center of the group walked Joseph, who had grown leaner in these few weeks, and perhaps meaner. Joseph started pointing to one thin figure, then another. It seemed that he hadn't recognized Samson in the blackness of the prison hut at night. He was willing, though, to turn in all of his suspects. Daveed decided he had better get his uncle. The group made it easy to do. They continued marching east and searching among the laborers.

Daveed met his uncle as the man stepped out of the outhouse. From the look on the Samson's face, he had immediately seen that something had gone wrong.

“Is that them?” he said. “I see guns.”

“Turn around. Move.”

They marched but they did not run. Samson did not permit it, partly because of his health, partly from fear that they would be noticed and shot. Unfortunately, they still had to walk over open ground. They were being missed, almost certainly, even as they escaped. The boat lay on the southeast corner of the island. When the guards did not find Samson among the laborers, east was the direction that they would search next. It was not a big island. No search anywhere would take long. 

By the time Daveed and Samson cleared the raft, they discovered that the thinner fellow could not budge it. The bottom of the vessel had two round poles lashed on as sledges. There was extra reed rope, so Daveed could make handles to pull. But his uncle's help amounted to nothing and, anyway, it hurt his stomach. Already, their plan had gone wrong. They had counted on the watercraft being light enough for two men to move. Really, they had only Daveed. He yanked. He could make inch or two of headway each time. To help, his uncle began to dig a trench for the boat, hammering the guano and the sand with a loose plank while Daveed pulled the pile of wood topped by their precious open food cans filled with rainwater.

Every bit of progress spilled the rainwater. There was no help for it. Daveed yanked hard. He broke a rope, then another. It took fifteen minutes to pull the raft onto the beach.

That was when the shout went up.

The voices of the guards on the other side of the rise forced Daveed to make a last, concerted effort. To his surprise, the sledge runners slipped across the sand. His legs splashed into the cool water as he ran backwards. The raft seemed to leap after him, almost bowling him over.

“Get on!” he shouted to his uncle. The makeshift craft bobbed next to him in three feet of water.

“It is sinking.” The weaker fellow put his hands against the raft and tested it. The raft bounced. Its waterline was low but, as far as Daveed could see, it was floating well enough to carry at least one person. Daveed could swim.

“It's fine!” he huffed. “Get on!”

“First, I must erase the sledge tracks. You know why. Then I will get on if you do.”


He clambered aboard. Moving the raft had taken so much effort that he need to catch his breath. He was happy that his uncle felt well enough to erase the tracks of the raft in the sand. It was what they had agreed to do during their work of many nights.

For a moment, he closed his eyes. When he heard a splash, he knew it was his uncle returning. He lifted his head to notice the fellow flailing in the surf. Daveed reached out. Instantly, he felt a shock as he realized how small Samson's wrist had become. Then he had him. They paused, gasping. He pulled the older man aboard and found that the raft held them both. Waves sloshed over them. But the water, at least for the moment, felt good.

The problem was that their boat was not moving.

Wordlessly, Samson slid off the edge. He had always been a strong swimmer. He had tried to teach his nephews. Now he kicked while Daveed rested. As he took deep breaths, Daveed shielded his eyes with his elbow. He heard his uncle kicking and pushing against the raft. He heard seagulls. He heard a fish plop back into the water, close by. Finally, he heard a distant shout. It was followed by silence.

When he looked up, he saw that Samson had disappeared. The raft had moved a long ways but it was still within sight of the beach. There were men on the beach.

Daveed started to scream for his uncle but he realized what the result would be. At this point, no one on the island had noticed him or the raft, which was not very big and did not shine. The situation would change when they heard his voice. So that could not happen. But where had his partner gone? He laid on his stomach and scanned the crests of the waves.

Minutes passed. Daveed thought that his raft was moving farther into the ocean. More men appeared on the beach. One of them wore the same blue shirt as the killer who had warned Daveed this morning. Two of the men, one of them the killer, passed something between their hands. It was a spyglass. The killer raised it to his left eye and scanned.

At that moment, Daveed’s uncle appeared. He surfaced in the swell of a wave to the east. A man close to him saw the dark hair against the white foam and yelled. Another man pointed. A third ran up from thirty meters away. When he continued his sprint into the waves, his companions shouted at him. They threw fistfuls of guano and pebbles to make him stop.

That was when Daveed noticed that a security officer had drawn his pistol. It was an old revolver, greasy and stained. All weapons on the island had seen decades of use. The officer fired once, whooped, and fired again, missing his companions, who flinched, and also missing Samson. The next shot jammed in the chamber. Two men begin to crouch over the hot pistol, trying to release the jam. Another officer bellowed advice.

“Stop!” David yelled when he saw what his uncle was doing. He stood up on the raft. It held him for a moment. Then it rocked. He slipped and his head slammed backwards onto the boards. Grass reeds pressed into his left ear. His vision blanked, although it returned a second later. In his mind, he focused on what he had seen.

It was his uncle, swimming to the shore.

Daveed rose to his knees. His raft seemed to be farther out than ever. Was he caught in a southern current? If so, was that a good thing or would the ocean sweep him away from the islands? He didn't think, at this point, that he could make it back. He couldn’t pull enough water with his arms to move against a tide. Ahead of him, his mother's brother revealed more of his body. He had tossed aside his too-big shirt. That revealed his formerly fat chest, now narrow with loose skin. He reached the surf line at the eastern beach of the island. 

With a howl, the shooter aimed his pistol at Samson and fired. The noise was swallowed by the ocean. Samson staggered or possibly he only tripped in the surf. It was hard to tell.

Behind the first shooter, the man in the blue shirt raised a rifle. He fired, too, more carefully. Maybe he fired more than once. It was hard to see when the waves were rising to block Daveed's view. Daveed searched for his uncle to see the result. He couldn't find the figure that was so familiar to him. His uncle had been the only one shirtless, the only one wading. He was gone.

For a while, Daveed lay down on the raft. It had no problem with his body mass. His uncle had weighed so little at the end that his presence had probably meant nothing to the watercraft. It could have held both of them together.

Daveed gazed at the beach without sitting up. He could only catch glimpses of the shore when his raft was at the top of the waves. There were still a few men there. One of them was his uncle's head lineman, the one in blue. That fellow raised his spyglass again and scanned the southern waves. This time, he pointed his line of sight farther out. It was at the right level to catch Daveed. A slight hesitation in the man let Daveed know that this had, in fact, happened. But the fellow looked away.

It was odd. Daveed was sure that he’d been seen. Yet the killer deliberately pointed the spyglass to the east, back to where the linemen and foremen had previously spotted Samson. After a few seconds, he put down the spyglass and pointed for his companions to look eastward. The remaining men began to gesture to one another. There was nothing in that direction but a flock of gulls.

The flashes of white seemed to excite them. One of them ran, then three together, back up the rise. They were returning to the settlement. Perhaps they would sail away in their only working boat. But it seemed that they would head east in it.

Daveed watched the island disappear and reappear with the rise and fall of the water. A minute later, at the top of the island's gentle rise, he saw the killer turn around. The man hesitated and glanced south at Daveed. He stared. Then he lowered his gaze, turned, and disappeared down the other side of the rise.

Hours later, as the southern island came into view, Daveed tried to understand. He was sure his eyes hadn’t fooled him. The killer had noticed his raft. He had seen Daveed and could have turned him in but he hadn’t.

Daveed knew that his slavery had been the end result many evils, great and small. They added up like droplets in a wave, a wave with enough force to sweep Daveed into slavery. Even this tremendous total, though, could be wiped out by a small kindness, by an otherwise evil man who looked away.

“You say that there is another guano island?” asked his rescuer later, a fishing ship captain who doubled as coast guard officer. “This is big news.”

“With many slaves.” Daveed had changed islands twice, always moving south, before he found a settlement with a dock and a ship. The ship's captain had given him drink, food, and a change of clothes.

“That is illegal. But the guano, it will make our country more rich. We will bring better equipment for the work. We will wipe out those bad men.”

“Do not hurt them. They were prisoners, all of them. Especially do not kill the one in the light blue shirt.”

“You just told me that this man has killed many others. You think he shot your uncle.”

“He was trying to live.” Daveed had taken many days of travel to think about the viewpoint of the killer. He thought he understood the crimes. The reasons behind them were the same as those that made the man take a calculated risk in letting Daveed escape.

It was hard to explain how he felt about this to the captain, a stranger. Murder was an enormous crime. Nevertheless, it seemed minor compared to the total of the evils that had stranded them on the island of slavery and disease.

“He was desperate.” He reached out for the captain’s hand and squeezed. “I want him to live.”

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