This Pitiless Choreography

Bodies, dozens of them, flailing and caving in convulsion rhythms, their limbed forms flaming as if harrowed by fears erupting from cellular levels. One body turns and turns in place, immobilized by movement. One dives to the earth as his shirt lifts off and floats inflated before covering him like a shroud. A ragged silhouette arms semaphores no one can understand.

The thing is even heavier than the thought of hauling it

Still from Vittorio De Seta’s Islands of Fire (1954).

The following is an excerpt from Evan Dara’s visionary new novel Permanent Earthquake, out today from Aurora. Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was published in 1995 and was celebrated by critics and writers including Richard Powers, who called it “monumental, cunning, heartfelt and unforgiving . . . Dara shows how a novel can be experimental, yet moral, rule breaking but emotional, and post-humanist while remaining deeply human.” This description applies equally to Permanent Earthquake, Dara’s fourth novel.

In the foreground and background of Permanent Earthquake is the titular event. All at once and all the time “the earth’s low groaning starts to mount, winds and gusts emerge from directions unpredictable. Then full earthroar.” Permanent Earthquake’s narrator navigates this onslaught. His quest is impossible, unless it isn’t, and his situation is irreversible, unless it isn’t. “If a thing cannot be proven,” Dara writes, “it can’t be disproven, either. That is his provision. The shaky uncertainty that, because of its incompleteness, takes on substance. Not-knowing is possibility, and will become his portable solid. Instability generating a higher stability going forward.”

Written in urgent, teetering prose that never once loses its grip on place or reality—however tenuous that reality might be—Permanent Earthquake is a novel that feels at once timeless and eerily well suited to our ongoing moment of permanent instability. It is available here.

But is a fall a fall if you don’t stay on the

Now slow now slowly extend, extend left crampanian muscle now slow slowly slowly

NOT with—slow, slowly, heel now heel now left crampanian muscle now NOW

Now. Leverage. OK, set the stone here. No, set it here. Then lift—lift it and go and GOing and

Now keep this going just keep this going, hands cold│fingers burning│armtops YANKed no don’t, don’t hear the screeching muscles and shunt! forward and

over the grasspatch and over the OVER the car door and one more step and one more step and

and the stone weighs and the stone plummets earthtowards and

I put my foot down and down is not there. I put my foot down and there is not there

OK found a rhythm, found it, go, just go, no hands no shoulders just go just go. Balance the stone, fall with it, fall forward WITH it make four feet make eight feet can make ten no muscles no shoulders just

tree piece over and brick pile over and dodge the dodge the whipping dogs and the patch of puke and get aROUND it and—

I—good. Good to wait. Down to Q2 now. Better. Much better, for going on. It’s no more than minutes, maximum seven or eight minutes, to B Path. Yes, pain, and yes, welts, new ones. But progress. Good progress. Ninety feet, it may have been.

Behind low cumulus the sun hovers close. Sweat and forever sweat in the late afternoon. But OK. I’m OK. At least an hour until the dispensary closes. I can get there. I will.

All across the greenfield, crumpled people push their shoulders from the juddering ground. They get up, wave like seagrass, collapse under upflung arms. Eventually reinflate and get themselves to vertical. Then the deep breath, then the few heavy, rooting steps, then the tottering forward. Never once does anyone slap the new dirtstains from their cladding or bodyguards. Strewn among the unfolding bodies, the few remaining upright trees bend and bow in the no breeze. The uppoking limbs of the felled do the same. And forever, forever, the groaning continues, the everpresent earthgroaning rises then subsides then crests to near roar.

No matter. I must go. I take off my handswaths, wipe palm sweat on the outsides of my leggings, slip the smudged canvas back over my fingers and onto my thumbs. I wiggle my torso til my front- and backpacks settle into workable balance, bop in place once to lodge the packs’ straps in my shoulders’ hollows. I lock my ankles and plant my feet, drill air into my chest, bend til just before my kneeguards snap and pick up—I pick up the stone, the gray-black evershifting stone. My forearms burn, my hunnph is lost in the constant earthgroaning but the new weight shoves me forward, forces me to follow it at the same time as I must resist letting it fall. In uncontrollable stumble I go, and go, then more slowly go. I have no choice. The only release is not to stop. There is no place to put my lever.

I step, and step. In Q2 I can get ten steps a minute. Not now, I tell myself. Got to be the heaviest stone I’ve hauled. Easily thirty-five—forty-five—pounds. I’d been surprised to find it. It was lying on its short side by a long stretch of fencewire submerged in meadow grass, a crease of green tracking over a percolating hill. Stone must have been abandoned. Too heavy to carry. I can get twenty florins for it. Surely—this one’s a twenty. I breathe in and throw a hip forward. Weight becomes sweat in late afternoon. Gathering, thickening, releasing in a trickle. The thing is even heavier than the thought of hauling it.

I go on. I cut diagonally across the sweltering lea toward B Path, my left footwrap pinching, my right wrap too big—its front tip keeps folding under my foot, tripping me up unless I step higher on that side. Must, must replace them. I thump a heel down, and the impact shudders up my leg and pumps breath through my chest and emerges as an UH. I fight off an itch high on my left cheek, feel it fade into an asterisk. I swerve around a bicycle seat.

Fleeing dogs and human staggerers clip into my vision. I pause to catch up with my runaway breath, clutch the stone to my chest and feel its mineral chill seep through my frontpack. Never, never can I think of putting it down. In front of me a short wide man appears with a shiny red cape draped over his chin, like a porcelain dog from China with its tongue sticking out. Blood from his mouth. He must have talked. Tried to talk. Maybe to scream. After his mouthguard had fallen out. Or to howl because he can not afford a mouthguard. It’s a good sign. His tongue is probably entire.

Next step and my right ankle sputters on a spoon, total disbelief I didn’t see it. But the pain isn’t terrible, the eely ligament shiver dissipates after I shift the stone left and cradle it in my elbow’s crook. I go on, one slugged step, the next, and the micro-delay gives me time to guess the best way to get around the helicopter. Lying on its side, skeletized, its wheels and doors and blades and glass all gone. I take the track that’s more deeply rutted and lumber past the dead whirlybird’s gray beached snout. I see the thing’s seats have been torn out and the day’s first blister stands up. Singeing sharp from the middle pad of my left hand’s fourth finger. Should have foreseen it. But didn’t. I didn’t. I shift the earthyearning stone so it doesn’t press upon the burn patch. Better. Before the blister sends a needle through me when it’s touched by my handswath’s cloth.

The stone is now repositioned and I can no longer see my legs. But this is familiar. I have dealt with this before. Remember: rocks, fissures in the soil, exposed roots, every one of them shifting. Step high, do not trip. I swivel my hips to send my shins forward: one, the next, now just keep going, grub left, grub back and just keep going. But my legs, bearing weight and anchoring weight and banging against the bottom of the stone, are invisible to me. Maybe every six steps the tip of my too-long footwrap flicks out from beneath the moving stone, before being covered again. And all throughout, my head drains from the top of the stone. Its shadow morphs then shrinks to a twisting rivulet then slips off. A solid gone liquid. A living auto-eclipse that, no matter the angle, bears my form. A skittish and unrecognizable glyph that is my form.

On B Path, trembles of bodies. One tremble-man dragging a long gray sack and one tremble-man clawing forward on two long sticks and one pulling a clanging-scraping metal cart, wheels gone. Other men, several, wrestling stones. Human scribbles diminishing in the distance, under unrelenting sun. All shame gone. In silence and in earthrumble.

The path itself—only nominal. The tarmac cracked and flaked as psoriatic alligator skin. I pull myself onto the route at one hundred eighty steps from Westgate and take tarmac posture: shoulders bent forward, arms extended fully, the stone held as far as possible from my shinbones and knees—every touch a crushing. Cold and weighted stresses at my fingertips.

I move forward one step, two, am hurled whippingly around by a younger kid boundering past. He does not slow and does not turn as my stone crashes down. One corner of the stone mashes away. I look at the loss: six percent of the stone’s weight, minimum. It will cost me. Nineteen florins now. Definitely down to nineteen, that’s what I’ll get. But the stone will be no easier to carry.

I kneel to pick up, see the fly-by guy half-skipping on the tarmac as it throbs. He’s using the earth’s resistance and lift, our land’s answer to a log-dash on water. He’s also carrying a stone. But his stone must be smaller than mine. As he shrinks towards the horizon he scythes the stone back and forth at the ends of his thin arms. Converting unstoppable falling to forward impetus. I have tried to do that. But his is a smaller stone. Much smaller, that is sure.

Only two five seven people are waiting on line outside the cyclone fence. The tall linkwire barrier somehow stays up, ten feet tall and extending in both directions farther than anyone outside the fence has ever been. The gate is open but no one enters. I’m panting, and both slippery and sticky with sweat. But I hang back, then duck behind a tree to make sure I can’t be seen. It’s probably unnecessary. The gendarme will not notice me. He’s too busy rounding his eyes and aiming them at the men on line. Must keep them quiet.

Now the question. Put the stone down and have to pick it up again, or just hold on to it. Hold on and live for the moments when random muscle fluctuations might make it seem lighter. I drop the stone. As if I had a choice. The stone clips my right foot’s outside toe. I hear the raging voice. Didn’t jump back quickly enough. You didn’t.

But it isn’t terrible. The pain not too bad. Then the stinging.

In glances I keep tabs on the line waiting by the fence. The men’s slow half-steps forward. Their stops. Their shirts like dripping candle wax. One body falling. And staying down. An elbow rising. The gendarme exploding then grabbing his stability rail. And behind: the silent three- and four-story houses, roofed.

The line shrinks to two persons but then a guy shoves by me and brings the number back to three. Such rudeness. But OK. I made the right choice when I put my stone down. And now I have more time to focus, and to reign in my burbling nerves. To prepare to enter.

The line reduces to one last sketch of a man, stone held to chest, teetering backwards. I squat, shove my fingers in dirt, uproot my companion and go.

At fifteen steps out I waggle as if my energy is failing, then stop and raise the stone on arms that I make sure are visibly trembling. While lowering the stone onto my shoulder I sham that my legs buckle, almost bring me to ground. In profile so the gendarme can not miss it.

Then I approach the checkpoint. I keep the shouldered stone between my face and the gendarme, and do not turn to him, and do not talk. He is bored and lazy and shaking himself. He will not make the effort to look. I hear him chuff and grab his stability rail, then hear his feet stop whisking the ground. He is back to bearing weight. In seconds comes the nudge. The gendarme has stuck the approval seal on my stone.

Manse, four, kid, he says.

I break quick and trot towards the designated house. My heart calming even though I’m moving faster.

I pass a watercarrier bent forty degrees by the spikes draped over his shoulders. A man sprawled in a medallion of sweat-darkened dirt. Children half-horizontal under stones cross-strapped to their backs. I lug up to the distributor and lay my stone at his feet. It takes ten seconds for me to grab back my breath and unstiffen and crick myself to upright. I flex my arms and feel the blood return, knuckle seep from my eye’s corner. I say to myself: Relax. Now you can. Only then do I notice that the worldshake is down to Q1.

The distributor is tall and middle-thick, his beard a cloud of gray rusted with dust. He looks down at my drop, says nothing, peels off the seal and steps aside. A buttresser runs up. He crouches, loses his footing for a second, almost goes over then hoists the stone away.

Four is the manse with three gables, one on every side I’ve seen. The building has three stories, standing unswaying under a punk cut of angled rooflets and steep pediments. Walls made of heavy limestone, mullioned windows dark and depthless. Halfway up a girding of half-timbering, uncrumbled.

They’re working the manse’s east side. The buttress-stones already reach to just below the windows of the third floor and extend in a French curve twelve, fourteen feet from the exterior wall. One stone bears, worndown, blurred, the oval insignia that once hung next to our post office’s entrance door.

The buttresser, hauling my stone, works his way up the slope. Sometimes he places my stone down on the terraced stack and uses it as a prop for his next step. Not once does he grunt. In less than a minute the buttresser stops, lifts my stone above his head and compresses like a spring beneath it. He shudders back to vertical, raises his arms, his sleeves slip below his elbows and he slides the stone onto the slope’s top. Then, with both hands, he pushes the stone snug. No mortar or cement. The existing structuring of stones and rocks makes my stone stay put.

The buttresser monkeys back down to earth. He runs off and jumps over a shirtless man squirted on the ground and approaches a distributor at the next manse’s north facade. My distributor continues to look up at my stone. I tell myself he is perhaps now surveying for aesthetic purposes. He nods and turns towards me. Hmphs and blinks his eyes to say: Done. He flips open his strongbox and stirs in two fingers. Fishes out and hands me fourteen florins, muddy dark coins. Then he turns to receive the next drop, from a man who must be seventy. Beneath a white mist of hair the man moves agilely, in short scurries. His back, under loose, sodden cloths, is rippling bone and lumped muscle. He tilts and I see he’s carrying two stones. Two large stones.

I disappear for the distributor. He stands with his hand curved above his stability rail and watches another buttresser scale the heap. The buttresser’s shoes, soleless beige cloths, grab edges of stones as he clambers up. The hard hill rises. Pebbles sprinkle down. Fourteen florins.

Other concerns. Both my frontpack and my backpack have slipped left, and their straps’ inner edges are cuffing my neck. I wriggle and bop up once and the packs fall true. My knees’ background pain then steps forward. It swells and grinds behind the convex bone. No matter. Ignore. Forget.

I move away from the manse, turn and look at the astonishing length of its shadow. Only three floors needed for that throw. Two stonemen push by, clutching blocks and spraying sweat, and I turn back and continue towards Westgate. No line waits to exit the manse area, though five or six haulers are sleeping or fainted along the inside of the barrier fence. Near them a wooden trough sits on the ground and jitters, its water kept shallow as a puddle. Its broad wooden scoop, hanging by a cord and flopping in the dirt, is gnawed across its entire lip.

Then a break. The gendarme is distracted, by a man bent like calipers and coughing, coughing. I slip out.

There’s still eighty, ninety minutes of daylight. I can make the dispensary, hopefully. Stock up on food. Get a new wristguard before the left one splits open, inevitable over the next days. Always better to replace before failure, its consequences.

I continue on, nearly capsize at first footfall. I smack down on my right heel and windmill my arms to restore balance then thrust my torso to upright. Moment of vertigo. Sunbeams swirling. I pause, and gasp, and wipe my face, and scan the next yards for sticks or roots or spoons. Only one possibly problematic rock at fifteen degrees right. I distribute my body’s dropweight across both legs, lift my left foot and slowly send it forward. Then push my right foot to follow. I rattle with every step. And between every step. Now that I no longer have my companion. My ballast. My companion of stone.

The shattered tarmac of B Path has a turnoff that angles towards the dispensary, a footground lane that passes through a stand of yews now snapped and fallen and stripped to pale bark. I take a carrot from the center pouch of my frontpack, rub it clean, stumble til two yards off-tarmac. I get up and brush silt from my elbowguards. Then I pick up the carrot. Rub it cleaner again. The new welt alongside my right knee starts to sing a shrill red note. I remember, with contentment, that I will soon forget it.

I remove my mouthguard and put it in a frontpack pocket then take a good chomp on the carrot. It falls into a cleft just opened in the ground. Is swallowed not by me. Its nice textured orange disappearing under floods of black dirt. Goodbye, good thing. I hear a granuly wrenching and look up and see a sinkhole shearing down no more than fifteen feet ahead of me. The whole forward terrain is shaking and a block of world falls in thunder. Grass and soilspray cloud the air. The sinkhole must be eight feet wide, eleven forward. I close my eyes at the sight. Then see the several other ruptures of land I have passed this week.

Quickly I pull my mouthguard from its pocket and fold it in and bite down. When it clicks in place I tear off towards the former yewstand and the dispensary beyond. Every step a stumble.

Now I am whirling. Now I am floundering. It is Q3. I tell myself: Hold ground to gain ground. The earthsound rises, brown dogs charge in arcs, the horizon seesaws and leaps. I get up, and take step by full-sole step towards the stumps and topples of the fractured yewtrees. The earth kicks me forward and my arms flap back and I fall flat on my chest, am bounced over the rocky ground for seconds then more seconds. I keep my head up but my upper thighs are roughly abraded and my lips crisped with silt. Then a pause. An occasion for breathing. And feeling the screechy new stings—on my right elbow, all down my right thigh, general. I crawl on, making sure to keep pushing my wristguards up. What I know: I must protect my palms. After a minute I flip onto my back, push off with both heels and shove my body onward, rising with every thrust so I won’t be gagged by my frontpack. Two minutes more and I return to crawling. It’s safer, better. My kneecaps can take it for a while. It isn’t yet necessary to slither.

The former treestand is thinner than I had remembered. More wood pillaged. It will only take a few minutes to maneuver through its spikes and trips. I crawl under broken treebranches, ramp over wet moss, use stumps as props and grabspots. At the last stump before space and day I push myself up and steady myself, and steady myself, on my two feet. I will walk. Will try to walk. My knees, I hope, will prefer those pains.

I take first steps into the clearing. It’s the broad field leading to the dispensary, and its fence forms part of the low, stormboat horizon. The field is filled with people—it must be closer to the dispensary’s closing time than I had thought. I see them all. Bodies, dozens of them, flailing and caving in convulsion rhythms, their limbed forms flaming as if harrowed by fears erupting from cellular levels. One body turns and turns in place, immobilized by movement. One dives to the earth as his shirt lifts off and floats inflated before covering him like a shroud. A ragged silhouette arms semaphores no one can understand. The vast skillet of the world heating and heating and turning human presences into puffs of smoke. The flung dry dirt when they hit the ground.

The Q3 sounds are perfect accompaniment to this pitiless choreography. Distant bodies fall to the earth and, to the land’s roaring, seem to bring up necks and chests in coordinated ways. Scattered rag-wearers drop to their knees and become a congregation in prayer. People waving panic arms turn into a chorus petitioning the sky. Widely separate on the springing field, two scarecrow women stand with their mouths gaping, a duet singing a silent lamentation. Then come the solos. One woman gymnasts backwards though the air. A bent man with a bent walkingstick does an involuntary jitterbug. An indistinguishable being stands with arms and legs X-outstretched, then vanishes from the stage.

Bubblepeople above the boiling land. Are they going to the dispensary? Coming from it? Is there now a difference? I stumble on. No other choice. Stumble or starve. But this is deep Q3. I put my foot down and down is not there. I put my weight there and there is not there. But I find an angle, I wrangle my way forward, I dodge stones and ankles and gusts of soil.

Now I’m facing the Morne Quatre hills. Now I’m facing a parking lot, cars gone, pavement gone. Now I’m seeing a tree standing on the flat then standing on a hillock. Now I’m wiping splatter from my mouth, now I’m looking at the bottom of a boot. I get up, and pitch in the direction where unkillable instinct tells me the dispensary is. I navigate towards it, I paddle and paddle air.

I approach a woman in a ripped smock then see sky where she had been

I draw near a boy with an eye swollen blue and shut and he’s on the ground clutching his elbow

I’m standing by a man with his mouthguard hanging from his lower lip as he reaches an arm shimmering with mud and blood to me

I’m standing with a woman punching her own legs to keep them down

I stumble on. Hold ground to gain ground, hold ground to gain ground, in an hour or four I will be home. A crawling man with one pants-leg split pulls himself over a halfburied rock then is flying, his shadow visible and following. Howl and he lands eight feet forward. A bicycle cadaver lies wedged against a bush, its wheels up, its pedals slowly turning. A pale and scragged old person of indeterminable gender sits and weeps and rakes its face with hands curled into paws, while bouncing.

I see another body, an old man in grisly tatters, crawling along a thick, woven, enormously long rope. Remnant from an early airlift attempt. As if on a steep uphill climb, the man’s bared arms reach and pull, reach then pull, his legs frogging behind. Then there’s a stone, and the man, reaching without looking, bangs his right hand into it. He bolts up to a sit and flaps the hand to dull the pain. Then punches his own mouth to suck and stanch the blood.

He winces, he rocks in place, his white hair sways and trails. The man won’t go farther for a good while. Will in all likelihood miss the dispensary. I dig into my frontpack and pull out gauze and tape, and offer them forward, tensing my arm so it will shake as little as possible. The man reaches to me with one hand, then grabs my wrist with his other hand, to still it, to reduce the shaking that no amount of my effort can stop. But then the man reaches higher, and grabs my forearm, and then my upper arm, then reaches farther again, moving towards my shoulder.

He is using me to climb, to pull himself up. It’s not the first time I’ve been through this. I’ll help him. I am balanced enough to provide support, my legs are strong. Four more clutches of me and the man rises, his legs straighten beneath him and he begins to regain the vertical. His huffing wets my face. But then the man throws his arms around my shoulders and bangs his head against my jaw, then moves around behind me and hangs his long and bony body down my back.

I stun, I wobble under this new weight. The man is whippet-thin but still a massive charge, and his moving and clambering throw me off balance, this is not ballast I can work with. The man then grabs his own elbows and locks his arms across my chest, and instinctively I yank at his wrists and peel at his fingers and roll my shoulders. But the man clings to me, he hangs on, a down-pulling human drape. His beard rasps my neck, he splutters into my right ear, but after a moment I get steadier on my feet and think, and think, what to do. What can anyone do? The man is hungry, the man is old and desperate and bone-weak and frail. He is only doing this because he knows he must get to the dispensary. For provisions. To survive. He can not not do this.

I will help him. I will give this man-in-need a boost. It is not beyond my capacities. I have a backbone and determination and I have strength. It will take longer, it will be tougher, but I will get him to the dispensary.

I toggle forward a few steps and hear, then feel, the man’s feet dragging. The added resistance knocks my spirits but I still have energy and then the eel in my right ankle comes to life. I’ve again stepped poorly and the injury from my earlier stumble is sparking pain. I will have to favor it, to stay off it, to train my, our, weight towards the left when I see a hand creeping across my chest. Like a sluggish spider, knobby crawling fingers rise and inch towards my solar plexus. I squeal, but the hand keeps moving and continues on to the center-pouch of my frontpack, then pinches the pouch’s zippertab between thumb and fingers. I jump and shimmy to make the man stop, but the hand starts working the zipper, tugging it down, then tugging it again.

Don’t, I say, mouthguard knocking. Food at dispensary. Can.

The man’s whisked breath sprays across my neck, and he continues to force the zipper open. I jolt sidewise to dislodge the man’s hand, but he has already worked his forefinger inside my pouch and the rapid action rips his skin across the zipper’s serrate edge. A blip of bloodcolor streaks by my face as the man whinnies and bays, then he bucks, grabs me hard, attempts to climb back onto my shoulders, falls from me like poured cement.

He lands on his side and pluffs and crumbles, stamping the ground with the edge of one torn shoe and poking his torn finger into his mouth. I rear back and stare down at this long slurry of rags twitching like a dying dogleg. It is painful to see, sad and wrenching—worse, a person beyond repair. But there is no more I can do, and I turn and start away. Secretly overjoyed to be rid of it, of everything. But then I am turning and walking back, then I am standing above the man, then kneeling and looking at his huffing. And soon I fish with my hands and catch one of the man’s wrists, then catch the other, then secure both in my grip. With one tug I pull this world-beaten man, as best I can, somewhat to vertical, and turn my back to him, and place his thin unresisting arms over my shoulders.

When the man is looped around me, I press my legs into the earth and jump. I land hard and the man bounces down and his weight falls upon my shoulders, heavier than before but more balanced. He starts to kick my calves, I have no idea why. But then, gradually, his sounds and movements soften, and his arms relax, and he tightens them across my chest, almost like an embrace. I, too, grow more stable. Breathing comes easier. I wait another moment to confirm this new calm. Then I push forward.

Moving slowly, my steps thrust-then-land, thrust-then-land upon the quavering earth. Around us nothing has changed. Chaos, wracked people, greenery flagellating empty air. I see blood from the man’s cut finger dripping onto my frontpack. Then I don’t see it any more. It’s obscured by the waters now breached from my eyes and coursing down my face.

The man coughs and phlegms and spits, a warm of wet flicks my left ear, the earth is surging all around me and I take two dragging halfsteps and collapse onto stony grass. No more than a second for all to happen and the man is squarely on top of me. My elbowguards are sturdy enough to lessen the blow of two human weights, but the fall bursts the air from my belly and I fail to brake the full whipdown. My chin bangs the earth, and my whole skull feels as if it has been strummed. Then, soon, sharp dull pain. Definitely a bruise tomorrow. Maybe blood already. I will not wipe to look. I tell myself: I must tell someone this.

Get, I grunt. Please. Upright. Can again.

The man writhes and snorts and shoves. My right shoulder gets slammed down, my ribs are pressed against the jumping earth. The man seems purposefully to be shifting his weight to where I feel it heaviest, to where it is most painmaking. I can not leave him here.

Still lying on my stomach I reach upwards and cast about with both hands to try to find the man’s arms. But the man is moving erratically, he presses and flattens me in ways that have no pattern. I continue to fish for him, I grab air. But then the weight lightens. The pressing down grows easier and I can lift a shoulder. The old man’s husky neighing stops. Coolness touches my back, and I roll onto my left side and see that the man is lying next to me. On his stomach. His midsection lifts and subsides with taken air. Grassblades in front of his face bend at the exhale. Then, abruptly, the man curls onto his hip, then swerves to sitting. For a moment he leans on one arm, then, suddenly, pushes up onto his feet. He sways and teeters before regaining the vertical. The man pauses, looks forward, rubs hair from his face, pats his hips. Then he sets off, with flateye determination. But hesitantly, taking a baby’s stuttering steps.

By now I’m also sitting. The ground is tamping my underside hard, and the new wound on my chin beats along with it. But ignore. The Giacometti of rags and legs is toddling away across the leaping field.

Sir, I scream. Sir.

The man does not look back. He can not hear me over the earthroar and the dispersions of my mouthguard. I jump to standing and, bobbling nonstop, bullhorn my hand.

Sir, I scream. Can.

But I am unsteady. I have not got my quakelegs, standing is shaking and my chin is hurting and when a shirtless person barges past as if fighting gale winds he│he twists me round and then I am on the ground, I am back on the ground. I land hard, wrong, on my hip, where I’m not covered, where the stun pain burrows to the bone. I sit up quickly and look and see the white-haired man I’d been hauling dwindling away, a sapling sent wandering into unforgiving distance, not hearing my yelling as he merges with the other crabbed plasms hunching towards the dispensary. I stay sitting and rub my hip and rub my ankle and push my kneeguard over a larger aching and I will not faint│I will not faint again, I promise myself this. And I shrill│I shrill after the man I’d hauled│I shrill and shrill and no one notices and no one responds and I turn to myself and I tell myself: I will not cry again until my tears run straight down.

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