by CE Cardiff
The box is half an inch narrower than the width of his shoulders. He shifts his body or can at least try to. He bowls his shoulders and shifts his weight against his right arm. The material of his shirt catches, pulling off tiny splinters that then try to pierce through the round of his wet shoulder.
"Jesus, that itches!" he says, baring his teeth from the pain. He shifts again, now with his right hand over his chest to grip that tortured shoulder and firmly press on it. The splinters break. They slip deeper past cloth and skin. For him it is a mild irritation. But small happiness, at least his shoulder doesn't itch any longer.
His legs have remained as they are: hunched up and pressed together, their length pressing against the top and bottom sides of the box, the faces of his knees against the right side, the balls of his feet against the left. He has just enough room to lift his left knee an inch and a half above his right. To get the circulation going, he wriggles and pulls one knee toward his chest before pushing it down again.
Another thing he can do: hold his breath, twist his torso to lie on his left shoulder or hold his breath again to twist and lie on his back. With each movement, he holds his breath and grunts. When he feels warmer, he sweats a little more at the temples, and for a moment blacks out into brightness. It is how he gets comfortable. Now a fetus praying, hot and perspiring. Now half a man, looking up at the tiny dots of light that pierce through the box.
Sometimes the lights beckon him to raise his head, put his mouth to one of the holes to greedily suck the air from outside. It's an attempt he fails at time and again. If he lifts his head, he needs to lift his torso as well. Then, he must crane his neck, spending even more breath and energy from the struggle alone. He crashes his head back against the wood and laughs softly, a half-frustrated and half-weeping kind of laugh. His ears pick up something. He quiets down, panics. Only after realizing that it is the ticking of the watch on his wrist does he begin to relax again, saying a little prayer to the saints.
"Tell me if she has started her bleeding yet," his wife will ask him.
He pictures his wife, the pleasure of the news she'll be expecting lighting up her face. Why that would be something to relish over, he didn't know.
Would his daughter have even known what he was talking about had he asked her his wife's strange request? Poor girl, he thought, I could have embarrassed her. Of course, she was still a little girl. In fact, hadn't she just asked him for a doll with hair she could comb out again and again like her mother used to do with her?
"I've already got the comb," she told him sheepishly. She produced out of the left pocket of her dress the object of which she spoke and showed it to him. It was a small comb, just fitting the inside of her tender palm, and it was gold in color. "I discovered it lying inside some brambles," she explained. His daughter's face lit up (like his wife's, he noticed) as she excitedly recounted for him the story of how she, undaunted, reached for the comb, how she wove past the thorns to pluck out the prize. "It was so easy," she said breathlessly, her eyes dancing, "Like plucking flowers from the side of the road!"
How sweet that was, he smiles recalling. What was all this nonsense about anyway? Of course, his daughter was still a little girl.
"When I come back again," he promised her, "I will bring you the biggest doll ever!"
But still, his mind and heart are clouded with this nest of worries about the dangers that the girl would encounter in his absence. Like the men who clapped his back like a brother but whose eyes lingered over to her, thinking he had turned his head away. He imagines them all like a pack of night dogs prowling the house. To that, his wife would say, "Then you're stupid for not letting her know." And his wife would be right to call him foolish. Of course. Why not let his daughter know?
Still, whenever he saw his daughter he couldn't help but think, "Oh, not just yet, another time maybe, on another trip." Or the wife could make the trip next time and tell the girl herself. He smiles, knowing full well how his wife often refused such trips. It is why he makes these trips alone. Back and forth between places. Back and forth between wife and daughter.
The drone of the engine tells him that he is moving. When it twists or turns abruptly, it rattles and booms like a big, rusty water drum. He tsks bitterly as his head bounces against the box. What he wouldn't give for smooth wood. Smooth wood feels cooler.
What he remembers of the truck is that it is red and old and that the letters that span the length of its tailgate are white with spots of rust eating away at the paint. He does not know what they have piled on top of him to conceal him, to make him not exist as a man but rather as whatever they were transporting. He has been many things. A bag of tomatoes. All kinds of fruit. Chickens. Never really a man.
There was that time when he was a pig among pigs. He winces now at the memory of their grunts and squeals of protest tearing through the shell of his ears, of their noise quelling his throat and pressing down upon his larynx to make him grunt and squeal back in protest too. He remembers being set so close together with his porcine brothers that he no longer could tell where the sound began or ended, whether the sound came from them or from him. And the smell! His stomach acids churn just thinking about it. He bristles at the thought of becoming a pig again. "Anything but that!" he says to himself.
The truck thrashes him about, throwing his head from side to side like a wet rag, his neck too tired to object. He closes his eyes and comments how even in this darkness within darkness he can still sense the tiny, sharp beams of light needle through his eyelids.
The ticking of the watch rouses him.
Not so long ago.
He was sitting on a wooden chair with his arms propped up on a wooden table, busy at the task of winding the watch by the light of a lamp. The watch had been a gift, but from whom he did not know, and so he had no sentimental feelings attached to it. But wind the watch he had to anyway, such a slave to the routine he had become. As his fingers worked, he let his eyes wander around the room to check for items here and there, adding and subtracting items from the inventory of his mind. Then his gaze fell upon the screen of blanket, beyond which was his daughter. Relaxing, he lost himself to the sounds of the night, to the whiteness of the blanket, to the idea that beyond the blanket there was nothing. Only darkness. Nothing more. No daughter.
It was the sound of her rustling in bed that pulled him out of his reverie, pulled him back to the girl. She seemed to be struggling in bed again, pressed down by certain nightmares that he knew she was having.
"What do you wrestle with each night in your sleep?" he asked her, curious.
"A giant bird," the girl answered. "It has fingers that try to grab me and pick me up."
But instead of telling her to fight back or kill the giant bird, he told her to dream sweet dreams. He patted her head, mused how beautiful her hair was, and sent her off to bed.
He had considered once more taking his daughter along with him; but like always, he eventually talked himself out of such a proposition. By dawn, he slipped out the house, away from his daughter who was still asleep. Leaving that way, while she slept, he would be able to avoid that terrible scene. The crying. The begging for him to take her with him. His deciding at that vulnerable moment that he would after all take her with him. But then what would he do? Cram her into this box? Into this space in which he had to hold his breath just to move? Imagining the both of them in the box, fighting to move inside it, he knew he would sooner kill his daughter than put her through an ordeal of this kind.
The watch ticks.
Just as useless as his watch are his hands. Even in prayer, clasping his hands together only would make them warmer and wet, irritating the parts on his palms where the splinters lie embedded. As for the watch, it only sits there uncomfortably against his wrist. At times, he longs to take the watch off and throw it away. Let the skin beneath breathe for once, his entire being for once. To be alive again! Be out of the box finally! Out and about, footloose and fancy free! He'd kick off his shoes and strip himself of all his clothing and stand naked like a lizard newborn with his arms stretched out to the wide, open skies, fill his lungs with fresh air until they burst! The more he thinks about this, the more he wants to weep from the aching to be free.
His limbs have gone to sleep. In fact, his entire body has gone dead and heavy. If he moves, then his blood would rush back like a vengeful river through his shrunken veins. This means the kind of pain he dreads the most. The pain of coming back alive. "How ironic that I should be more afraid to come back to life than to die," he smiles to himself.
He feels the truck slow down and hears the sound of the engine being cut. He is never calm when the truck stops. Always at this point, his heart races, his mind runs wild. He prays to the saints for the best possible thing. Then, like a mantra, he mouths to himself slowly, "You're all right, you're okay," which soothes him. He closes his eyes and wills himself to sleep.
He sees his daughter walking by herself across the rocky desert. Behind her, as if it were following her, is a snaky trail of blood. He runs after her, trying to cover the trail completely by scooping up and throwing handfuls of sand upon it. Bringing his palms to his mouth, he calls out to his daughter to stop and wait for him. She doesn't hear him and goes on. Out of nowhere, a high shriek, the sound of which unnerves his bladder, bullets through the stillness around him. Looking skyward, he sees the giant bird of his daughter's dreams. He watches as the bird swoops down for her and runs faster to where she is. He sees the bird's talons grab at her dress and her hair. Reaching them, he begins to beat the bird with his fists, each blow a futile attempt as the next. The bird sweeps him aside with one effortless flap of its wing. On the ground, powerless, he watches as the bird comes back for his daughter, who tries to fend it off, screaming at it as it tears at her dress and her hair. She kicks the bird with her small feet. She pummels its massive breast, fist after fist. The bird flies away but returns for her again. And again the girl strikes back, now flinging her small body against her predator with all of her strength. Finally, the bird flies away, leaving his daughter, bruised and bloody after the battle, her head bereft of the hair that had been the thing he had loved most about her. Without so much as a glance his way, his daughter turns and continues on her way.
He awakens with a start, feels the heat hover over him like a blanket, suffocating him. The sharp beams of light, like cruel sirens, beckon him. He tries for them once again and fails once again. "I'm dead," he grits his teeth, wanting to scream. Then the blood in his body begins to stir, courses back timidly at first, and then angrily through his body. He protests the pain, shaking his head vigorously, his hair like wet strings against his temples. He wants to scream, but he cannot. He wants to rise and stretch, but the space is too constricting. He wants to fight, but he cannot. And so he remains in the box, trapped in this stifling space. He does not know where he is. Or for that matter, what he is.
About the author:
CE Cardiff received an MFA from the New School University's Writing Program, in New York City, and currently teaches composition at the University of Kentucky.