Scrap

By Zana Previti


I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Eliot

They have worked so long together - many months, now - that their motions are synchronized without seeming mechanized, timed to the other's breath and swing. To observe them at work, at first, one might think that they move exactly in sync: that when Bjør lifts his cleavener, T.J.'s lifts too, at the precise moment. But if one watches longer, for an hour, or for the entire day until the alarm cries out for Feed and Bathe, one would notice the pulling back, almost imperceptibly, of T.J.'s arm, the hesitation of Bjør's upswing, the sound of the pounding of metal against bone and board reverberating longer than it should. They complement each other, T.J. and Bjør, the way all good teammates and partners complement each other. T.J. is very slightly stronger in the forearms and chest than is Bjør. Bjør is more agile, quicker in response and reaction than his counterpart on the right. They adjust themselves and their movement so that they may remain in a constant rhythm: up, hack, up, hack, up, saw, saw, up, pull, wrench, wrench, throw. The arm is loose and away, in the pile. They each lay a hand on the body's hips, push and slide the body up on the block, and lift their tools to begin removing the lower extremities. The sky above them is purplish-gray, midafternoon, and the breeze that blows in low, quiet gusts brings with it the smell of metal and decay: brackish, cold, ashen when inhaled. They inhale on the upswing; they exhale it out when the cleavener touches flesh.

After one watches the partner Beccos long enough, become used to the masculine dance of severance and to the wrenching away of human limbs, one might allow the eyes to wander and perceive, above the blond head of Bjør and the bald gleaming black head of T.J., the massive hatted head of the Junk Man.

THE JUNK MAN
WANTS YOUR
SCRAP
!

says the rotting billboard, and beside the words a noseless human face winks one eye, and a hand emerges to touch the brim of a yellow hardhat, the kind used in construction sites of pre-war industrial societies. The Junk Man, smiling and close, frozen in the gentlemanly act of tipping his hat to the vast gray Salvation Station A and its corrugated metal bins of body parts, has remained in the air so long partly because he has been overlooked, and partly because he has been deemed innocuous enough to remain. He keeps one eye on the Beccos, who keep their eyes on the joints and on the blades of their cleaveners. The blades hack away at the layers of man: differently colored, differently textured, one atop the other and all stripped cleanly away by the edge of the Becco tools.

*

"So we didn't," says Bjør, "anyway."

"Too bad," says T.J.

They slide the torso higher up on the slab and hack at the hip joints.

"But that stuff used to happen all the time," says Bjør.

"Right," says T.J., "I remember."

"Like, when we were kids, they'd do stuff like that."

T.J., on the right side of the body, uses his left hand to hack and saw, and his right arm to throw the leg into the bin. He hangs his cleavener on his shoulder. Then he walks around to the top of the work block and pulls the torso off and heaves it into the steel gray Torso Hold. There is a suspension of sound, a stillness, while the heavy ribs and hips travel to the bottom of the steel bin. There is a sound, unk, when it hits the bottom: the Hold has been emptied not long ago, perhaps yesterday during Tand Lines. Bjør walks to the bag behind the block. He walks with short, abbreviated steps, awkward for a man of his height. His arms and legs are long, long enough to give the man trouble when he tries to pull sleeves and pant legs to cover his wrists and ankles. He walks choppily. Each step, it appears as though he is catching himself short at the edge of a deep crevasse, a sudden precipice that appears again and again and again. And as he steps he holds his hands out in front of his thighs, his palms turned out. His palms are white; he is pale-skinned and pale-haired, and his eyes are wide and dark so that from afar he appears as disjointed limbs attached only by whiteness, moving through space in defiance of the rules of what qualifies as man alive. He hoists a body from the plastic bag, hugging it under the armpits, and drags it to the block. He hefts it up and positions it, splayed, on the wood, and then he stands on the left and T.J. on the right and they begin their cleavening swings, to hack free the shoulder joints.

"When we were kids," says T.J., "my buddy Ilya and me used to pretend we were spies, for ArCO, and what we'd do is - keep yours straight or I'm gonna lose my cut - we'd tie my little brother to a chair in one room."

"This one is tough," says Bjør. They push the body up a little higher on the block. There is a twin set of parallel grooves in the block that have been cut over time, and if the joints are particularly tough T.J. and Bjør move the body to a space where the cleaveners have not carved as deep a recess.

"And we'd surround him with stuff, like broken glass and metal skewers and towers of cans, and then we'd go off to the next room and play and he'd have to get himself free without making any sound or knocking anything over."

Bjør laughs. They wrench free the arms and toss them into their bins. It is a nice day. The arms in the air flash white against the lavender of the sky, and it feels good, to both of them, to be working again.

"How'd you tie him?" Bjør asked.

"That's the worst part," says T.J., "we used that old medical-help-yourself tape they used to give out. You remember that?"

"Hookum," says Bjør. From the force of the blows, the body's legs have jumped and twisted together like a yogic Eagle, and Bjør watches as T.J. hangs his cleavener on his shoulder and bends over the body to untwine the legs.

"It smelled so bad," says T.J., "so every time we made him play he smelled like hookum for days. And sometimes we tied him so tight -" the legs free, T.J. takes up his cleavener again and the two of them swing down, "that he couldn't get out at all, and we'd forget him and once we left him there tied up for a day and a half."

Bjør laughs again. "He working somewhere?" he asks.

"Oh, no," says T.J., "he went out a long time ago."

"Too bad," says Bjør.

They open the flesh. The hip joint underneath the skin and fat and muscle is stubbled with small blue growths, cobalt-colored and spider-shaped. The growths, like hard knots in wood, resist the cleaveners and they hack for some time and even T.J.'s arm starts to feel leaden and impatient. They work at the blue knobs on the cartilage and bone, and occasionally one will reluctantly give and shatter, but they seem to grow tightly together so that to sever the hip joint will require small focused efforts, head and eyes close to each tentacle-blossoming growth, a scalpel-wielding hand picking away at the weak points with the precision of a miniaturist.

"Not going to happen," says Bjør. He hangs his cleavener on his shoulder. T.J. holds his lengthwise, one end in each hand, and lifts it above his head. He pushes it backwards so that he feels the muscles in his shoulders lift and pull away from the bone, his spine compressed by the shoulderblades.

"What are they?" T.J. asks.

"They're tough," says Bjør, "I've never seen them," and he pushes the body off the block and climbs up on to the block himself, to lay down. The armless body falls on its chest into the dirt and the legs, free of the tendons which attached its groins, lay akimbo.

The block itself is a square, long and wide enough to spread-eagle a large male across its top, and thick enough that it had been struck by thousands of Becco partners, turned over and struck again by another thousand. The wood is so thick and solid that when Bjør lays upon it the grain itself rises to meet his body, and presses against him more firmly than his body presses downward. The dark matter that has seeped into the grain - the fluid and discharge from the bodies - does not matter to him. He has gotten used to everything, because these things constitute his daily work. The winking eye of The Junk Man bruises in the purple light. T.J. drags the incomplete body to sit up against a bin, then walks to their small crate of tools and removes their Becco takkie.

*

"I called Eckles," says T.J. to Bjør.

"Hey Teej," says Bjør, "Do you have any scrap? I know a guy who wants it."

"I got scrap," says T.J., "I got more scrap than I know what to do with." He turns and looks at the giant bag of bodies and counts, in his head, how much time they can spare and still be able to clear the bag before F&B. He calculates how long Eckles will be with a new set of cleaveners.

Bjør closes his eyes. Bits of the spidery growths they had broken remain on the block, and he can feel their pointy tips biting into the fleshy part of his thighs.

"I hope those things aren't on our joints," he says. "He's gonna sharpen them?"

"No," says T.J., "I just asked for two new ones. He said maybe ten minutes."

T.J. swings his dull cleavener back and forth in front of his body like a scythe. It whistles. Around them, the green bins of body parts stand at the four corners of the block, each positioned only far enough away for the limb to be tossed easily into its metal jaw. The bins are deeper than they look; the ground has been dug away like a grave, and the bins lowered into the ground thus like caskets, and so only a few feet, of many, appear above ground. When T.J. or Bjør toss an arm or leg sidelong into its hold, there is always a pause - a second too long, an observer will think - before the dull sound of contact at the bottom of the bin. Behind the block, at the backs of the Beccos, is the mountainous black bag, hauled in every morning by the Revor Truck, and emptied, body by body, by the Beccos and redistributed into the bins. The lining of the bag is knitted with silverescent, an antibacterial cruon, and the smell in the bins is contained by the mere depth of the bins. T.J. and Bjør, like all Beccos, wear shirts and pants knitted with the same silver cruon that line the bags, and in this way remain decently shielded from the stink and infection of their work.

"T.J. Look. Ahh. I'm dead," says Bjør. "Piece me up."

"Give you to the Junk Man," says T.J.

Bjør sits up on the block, his palms flat and pressing down against the wood.

"T.J.," he says, and T.J. lets his cleavener slow its pendulations and stop. The edge, dull and coal colored, rests in the dirt and particles cling to blade, brown against black. Bjør says, looking at him, "We're like the Junk Man, did you ever think that?"

T.J. makes a quarter turn away from Bjør and then twists his face back toward him. He puts his hand to the brim of an invisible hat, and winks.

Bjør lies back down on the block, and stretches his arms out.

"Pretend to cleaven me," he says. His eyes are open and upward looking, focusing and unfocusing on the dilations of the purple sky. He cannot tell when his eyes are focused, because the sky does not change, and he cannot make out the particles of ash borne by the wind.

T.J. heaves up the cleavener and walks the three steps to his side of the block. His shadow and the curved shadow of the cleavener fall over Bjør's legs and boots; T.J.'s head, on Bjør's left thigh, looks long and thin and his ears stretch and move both downward to reach his neck and upward to his scalp. He turns his head, just slightly, to the left, and the shapes of ears disappear into the black shadow of his skull. When he brings the cleavener down onto Bjør's shoulder, he lets it rest there a moment, and he is surprised by his body's inclination to slice through the skin and muscle and tendons and through to the wooden block below. It takes more energy, more attention, more control, to not do, to stay the mechanized repetitions of what has been his work for so long. His arms are ready to sever Bjør's limb. No, says T.J.'s mind to T.J.'s body, Gently.

"You're lucky it's so dull," says T.J.

"You're lucky it's dull," says Bjør.

*

Towing a thin funnel of copper colored dirt, Eckles appears in his convee and it stalls before he brakes, about ten feet from the block. The convee is a smaller model: it seats just one and hums softly, even after it stalls out.

"Sorry," Eckles says from his seat, "I've got three Salvacompactors down in the fifth. Idiot techs can't find a tooth in a gauge to save their lives. What eh? Piecing Bjør? That's fine. You'll want something sharper eh? Teej? Eh? In the back."

T.J. takes the blade of the cleavener off of Bjør's shoulder joint and carries it around to the back of Eckles' convee, where he places the tool in the hold and unwraps the new, gleaming cleaveners.

"I'm being a body," says Bjør.

"New cleaves are heavy, eh," says Eckles, twisting a little in his seat to see T.J. behind him.

"You ever see little blue tumors on a joint?" asked T.J.

"What's that?" said Eckles.

"Eck," says Bjør, "Tell T.J. how you lost your legs."

The new cleaveners are tied together at their blades and at the bottom of their handles with gray bungee cord knotted together so many times that the knots pile on top of one another and form small towers, perpendicular to the plane of the tool. T.J. grunts with annoyance and begins to pry at the knots with large stubby fingertips.

"Oh, eh. That's a story. Not normal, now, they changed the ejection. Procedure. Or operation. Not sure."

Eckles sits in the convee with his upper body strapped in by two vinyl belts that cross at his chest. His legs are gone, his right severed and healed just below the knee, and the left, about six inches below his hips. When he drives, he tucks a blue station issue blanket around and underneath the stumps of legs, and, on the resulting lap, piles small black seeds from a hybrid tomato plant he grows on a window sill at the central diaporic office.

T.J. pulls the cleaveners from the back of the convee and sits down, crosslegged, with the tools in the dirt. He pulls the handles into his lap so that he can bend over the knots and work on them more steadily.

"Eck was a four-bega pilot," says Bjør, "and he left his legs out somewhere in the Junzon."

"Eh! Never thought of that," says Eck, "They're out there, somewhere, sure. Two of 'em, probably lazing it up on the Junzon rocks. Any deserters find 'em, they'd eat 'em! Probably, eh?"

T.J., said, without looking up from his knot, "They get shot off?"

"No," says Eckles, "No, no. That'd be better, eh? We were flying over a drop-in climate, with one of the newer planes at the time, both pilots in the same pit, eh? My old sit-in RIO Bully and me, Bully the Bear we called him. And it's no deal, there's twelve of us in the sky and the Union's gone from that area for days. Total nothing in the sky. Nothing below, just Junzon. Talking to each other on the takkies, hullo, not much to see here, eh? Out of nowhere a flare comes up from the north central Junzon. Out of nowhere. I'm watching it come up, thinking, oh, that's not right, eh? Not even reacting. And we're the unlucky ones. Flare right up through the vire fuselage. No chance. So Bully ejects us before we blow to bits. Old planes, you know, we eject together in a single chute.

"We go up out of the jet whip-quick, and maybe it's because of that, eh, I think we're set and the chute's right. But I'm with him in our harness and we're falling, and I look up and the chute isn't open, twisted up, someway, in this sad little wad of blue, and we're just rolling all over in the sky and this chute is a bad one, and the harness and the lines of the chute are getting wrapped around the two of us as we're falling and we're making it worse by grabbing on one another and trying to find things to unwind and pull on to get the chute to open and it's only getting us in more mess, eh? And twisting all us and the lines of the chute are digging into us like metal and we're tied to one another and we just fall like that tumbling all over until we hit the canyon floor.

"We hit not the rock of the floor but brush and Bully takes the most of it and like that, he's gone. Not dead but the closest you get to it, eh, before you're dead. So I wake up, I'm in this foliage, branches up my asshole and eyeballs and I'm feeling Bully's breath on my neck, eh, because he's tied to me, tight, by the cords and the lines of the chute. And are we tied up? Tied, like tightness wasn't invented until this hour. Tight, eh? Tied up tight like that to him and him dead or close enough on my back and nowhere to move because I'm twisted and tied and done for.

"They didn't find us a long time. Not for a long time. No food, no water, you forget feeling and time. No logic, eh? Just your body. Nothing."

"You ate him," says T.J.

"No I didn't eat him," says Eckles, "I couldn't, eh, even if I wanted to, which I didn't. Tied up so tight that I couldn't move so much as a pinkie finger. Every part of my body lashed to some other part of mine or to Bully's. When they found us, finally, after Bully died, eh, I knew because the breathing on my skin stopped and I was grateful for it, the lines that had tied me to Bully had been so tight for so long on my legs that they'd killed the circulation and my legs hadn't had blood for ages, days, weeks, and they'd had to cut 'em off because they weren't any good anymore. Dead branches of a tree, eh, getting pruned."

Bjør laughs, and laughs, and he sits up on the block and brings his knees up into his chest and hugs his belly with his arms. He balances on his sacrum; the shoulders lurch forward and backward with his laughter. Watching him, Eckles laughs, too, more softly. He looks up at the Junk Man and laughs.

"I don't understand," says T.J., "how you couldn't get free." A knot comes loose under his fingers, and he makes a small grunt.

Bjør stops laughing. He puts a hand down on the block to steady himself, and a shard of blue sharp edge pierces the pad of his hand, the calloused pillow just below his index finger.

"What do you mean?" he says to T.J.

"You could've gotten out of those ties," says T.J., "If you'd wanted to."

Eckles keeps his eyes on the Junk Man. The Junk Man winks at him.

"No, what," says Bjør.

The unloosed bungee cords swim around the dirt, unhappy water moccasins, and T.J. holds a cleavener high in each hand and comes around the convee so that he stands next to Eckles and looks Bjør in the eyeballs. He rests the cleaveners on Eckles' side of the convee, leaning them against the machine, close enough so that if Eckles stretches a bit, he can reach both tools. The blades rest higher than the top of the convee; they are so sharp, it seems, they nearly ring out when the wind touches their blades.

"You could've gotten out, if it was that serious," says T.J. to Eckles, "If you didn't, it means you didn't want to," but he is looking at Bjør.

Eckles keeps his eyes on the Junk Man. The Junk Man smiles, tips his hardhat.

"Fine," says Bjør, and he jumps himself off the block, catapulting his thin and wild limbs off the wood with his hands, landing with a small upswirl of dust at his feet. "Fine," he says, "Get a body - a big one, your size - and we'll see."

*

The body is a white man but death has both darkened and paled the skin. Where T.J.'s body is the color of a midwinter night sky, then the body is a summer gray dawn. T.J. stands straight and tall, lifts his chin in the air and closes his eyes. His arms are pinioned to his sides, pulled and knotted back to the body behind. He breathes through his nose, so that his mouth is not coated with the ashen wind. Bjør crouches at his partner's feet; he squats the way young children squat down to examine a bug or worm found unexpectedly aswarm in dirt. He loops bungee around the body's calves and T.J.'s calves, tying them together. The bungee cord, so recently untwined from itself by T.J., finds itself again straining and tightening against and within its own body, manipulated into dense, dry knots. The skin on T.J.'s calves depresses where the cords bite into it; blood rushes to those thin, crossing lines. Bjør shifts his weight from side to side, his knees wildly wide and jutting, and tugs at the cords. They are taut and hard as wire. He stands up and wipes his palms on T.J.'s shirtfront. T.J. lowers his face and looks at Bjør.

"Done?"

"Done."

Stiffly, T.J. begins to shift. He tests the strength of the cords by flexing the muscles in his legs and arms and back, but the cords do not give, not at all. Watching from the convee, in his seat, Eckles says: "Eh."

Bjør steps backward, so that he stands next to Eckles in his convee; Eckles passes him a small handful of black seeds. They bite down on them, cracking the dry briny seeds between their back teeth, and there is a drop of cool, tang-scented juice within. They watch, to see what T.J. will do.

T.J. can feel only the bonds. Bjør has tied him as tightly as possible, without the easing off of a friend or someone privately partial to T.J.'s success. T.J. is uncomfortable, and as he panics, briefly, the discomfort is heightened because his body expands and the cords dig more deeply into the flesh. Gently, says T.J.'s mind to his body, Gently. He closes the mouth that had opened during panic and the air through the nose, down to the lungs and back out again, moves more slowly.

The hair on the body rubs against T.J.'s bare arms and he wishes that he had rolled down his shirtsleeves before being tied. What to do, the mind thinks. The body wants to twist and wrench, violently, but the mind says, No, do not seem ridiculous. Wait. He is tied to the body across the chest and belly, with the cords threaded between his legs and over his long hipbones. He is tied, too, at the calves and above the knees; his shoulders are tied like a knapsack to the body's shoulders; the cords bite into the softer flesh inside the hollows of his elbows and wrists. He begins there, with his arms. He moves one shoulder up and toward his ear, and rotates it backward. As he does, the cords across his shoulder pull the body's head closer to his own. He moves his shoulder again, making small circles, and he thinks he feels, with cautious joy, a loosening in the cords on his right arm. He moves his shoulder more actively, larger circles, and begins to pull the hand and wrist downward, the movement of the lower bones of his arm opposing, in direction, the movement of the larger upper bone. The head of the body behind nods forward, the neck long broken. The lips, open, lie to rest on the back of T.J.'s neck; the ash in the wind blows in the space between so that T.J. feels a soft, powdery kiss.

"Get its head off," says T.J. Should he search his memory, he will not be able to identify a time in which he has stood closer to any other body than he is now, to this dead body. He does not search, though. He is still and his fingertips stretch out away from the bones of his hands and he says, again, "Get its head off."

Bjør and Eckles look at each other and smile. Eckles says "Eh!" Tiny muscles in the legs, in his stumped legs, begin to twitch and Eckles looks down, to where his legs are covered by the blanket, surprised and expecting to see the blanket move. Small, electric moments string along the inside of his groin and, in the right leg, in the soft slack muscle just above the knee. He looks up, again, at T.J. and T.J is flailing, shaking his head in violent negative, quickly, his shoulders shuddering in what looks like unconscious movement, in what looks like the instinctive shaking of a traumatized animal. The body's breath comes off it in tiny, silent puffs and rubs against T.J.'s skin, which is pulled against the corpse skin, pulled taut and deeply within so that the pores of the two skins latch to each other as small clasps. And Bjør is not laughing.

"TAKE ITS HEAD OFF," bellows T.J. and if his speech were a song it would rise and falter out of tune. The body's nose rests in the hollow behind T.J.'s neck, nuzzling his nape like a lover. The body's chin grazes the space between T.J.'s shoulderblades. T.J's mind sees the mouth of body open, black inside and a purple dead tongue thickening inside it, and breath heavily onto his neck.

"Get him out," says Eckles, and Bjør moves forward a step and stops.

"T.J.," he says, "settle down." He looks at Eckles who shrugs and shakes his head; Eckles places his palms on the muscles of his abbreviated legs. The quiverings there mimic the spasmodic jerking dance of T.J's body.

"Okay," says Bjør, "Teej."

He turns and wets his index finger with his tongue. He runs it along the blade of one of the new cleaveners. The blade, black and glinting new in the absence of sun, winks at him - the blade is so fine that the edge of it disappears into transparency, into nothing. It has been honed to nothing at all.

T.J.'s voice is low and pleading.

"Take its head off," and he repeats himself, softly.

Eckles twists to his right and reaches for the cleavener that Bjør has felt with his finger. He holds it out for a moment, suspended in the air, before Bjør feels that he is expected to take it. When he does, he closes and recloses his right hand around the handle. He hefts its weight in his hand and passes it back and forth between his left hand and his right hand, and feels how the cleavener is a different, more dangerous instrument in his left hand. He walks forward, until he is perhaps a foot in front of his partner.

"Chin to chest," he says to T.J., and T.J. ducks his head deeply and points the crown of his head out, as far downward as it will go. Bjør holds the blade of the cleavener to the neck of the body. He pulls back; T.J. pushes his chin more deeply into his chest and keeps his eyes open; Bjør swings and the cleavener sticks fast in the flesh. He wiggles the handle, pulls the blade free.

Bjør takes four short steps behind him and stands by Eckles and the convee and they stare at the body. Where they expect the throat to open and gape almost comically backwards and swing the nape of the neck between the shoulderblades, there is instead only a slit in the skin. From the slit come, protruding and pushing like a mob of coldly intent and furious protestors, hundreds of small blue cockles, hybrid things that are both snail and cactus and spider, all star-shaped and issuing from the throat.

T.J. can not see what they see. He straightens his head and he feels the pointed tips of the growths only briefly against his own neck, tickling, the exhalations of the stars on his skin.

"Get it off," says T.J. His voice moves into a space from which he wishes he could withdraw. His jaw is tight and the piece of muscle that connects his flesh to the bone pulls itself taut and hard, hauling and yanking the parts of his face together. The purple of the sky makes his skin papery and violet and the whites of his eyes are blue in the light, and he wants to say, again, that he wants it off of him but he holds the sentence in his mouth and clamps down on top of it. The sentence swells his tongue and his tongue pushes a demand against his teeth and his teeth remain and push back without feeling. He cannot give up, even, he cannot fall to his knees; he is held fast and upright to the body.

*

T.J. lies on the block, atop the body. Their arms and legs are stacked and splayed; their bodies are five-pointed and very still. Bjør bends over them and worries the knots he has tied. He works at a knot at T.J's shoulder, his face very close. He smells sweat and putrefaction, the sweet animal smell of a decaying human liver. He holds his breath. T.J stares upward at the Junk Man. The Junk Man winks. The yellow hat above his eyes shines, sun-like.

Eckles, from the convee, has raised his voice so that they can hear him speak. The wind has risen; the ash in the wind clogs sound.

"He said he hadn't gotten a head, no heads, eh, I said. He'd have noticed if he had, he says. But you know Salve Ops. Throw your granny into the compactor if they're in a rhythm, eh. But he says no. No, must have gotten in someway else. How's a tooth getting in a compactor unless it's in a head? I ask him. No teeth, eh, in arms and legs. Never seen any teeth in my arms. But it's jammed . . ."

He looks at T.J., who does not move. Bjør gives a little grunt, satisfied, as one knot comes loose and he unlaces the cord from itself.

"Just the same way a tooth would jam it," he goes on, "just in the same spot and with the same stick. But now, eh, I wonder, if maybe it's not a tooth."

Bjør moves to T.J's hip and applies himself to a knot there. T.J. closes his eyes. The back of his skull rests on the body's forehead, which is cool.

"I'll come back for the cords," says Eckles.

"Right," says T.J.

Eckles turns the ignition and the convee vibrates and hums more loudly. They go away, Eckles and his machine, trailing dust gray like mist rising on water.

*

Loosed, T.J. lifts himself free of the body and rolls to stand by the block. He looks down, then away and off, at the metal bins across from him. These are the bins into which Bjør throws arms and legs. T.J. crosses his arms and rubs his biceps, where the blood has come determinedly back into the veins. They will not be able to empty their black bag by the time the alarm cuts the air; they will work mindlessly long and hard together tomorrow. They will not have time to speak or pause; they will work in a rhythm so tight that each will work to catch up to the other.

Death has undone so many; the number of bodies that has passed under their cleaveners is immense. But none, until this body, has had within it anything strong enough to withstand the cleaveners.

They have worked so long together that their motions are synchronized without seeming mechanized. To observe them at work, at first, one might think that they move exactly in sync: that when Bjør lifts his cleavener, T.J.'s lifts too, at the precise moment. But if one watches longer, for an hour, or for the entire day, one would notice the pulling back, almost imperceptibly, of T.J.'s arm, the hesitation of Bjør's upswing, the desire to stop what they are doing, the desire to stop entirely, the desire to reassemble the bodies they have cleavened apart, the desire to reassemble their brothers and the brothers of others, the desire to be stopped in their work, impeded, forbidden to go on. They complement each other, T.J. and Bjør, the way all good teammates and partners complement each other. T.J. fixes his eyes on the joint, and so ignores the body itself. Bjør fixes his eyes on the edge of his tool, and so avoids seeing the body itself. They adjust themselves and their movement so that they may remain in a constant rhythm, propelled by momentum: they work but in so working, wait for something to stop them. The sky above them is always purple, or it is gray, and the breeze that blows in low, quiet gusts brings with it the smell of metal and decay, ashen when inhaled. They inhale on the upswing; they exhale when the cleavener touches flesh.

T.J. lifts the body in his arms, as a family man lifts his sleeping child, and takes it down from the block. He lays it down on the dirt. He kneels next to its head. He puts his hands inside the neck and pulls, from each side of the wound, to expose a forest of blue stars studding the bones and girding the joints. The tips and points of the stars press themselves downward, onto the bones and tendons below, as if they have been called to stand and act, and, so arriving, shield with their small hard bodies the integrity of the structure beneath.

 

Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She is now working very hard to earn her MFA in fiction at the University of California, Irvine.

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