to 5

    on the 5ives




The others had not tried to get Miriam up, and by the time she woke they were evidently ready, for she could hear their anticipatory clicks and whirs. When she unfolded her limbs, difficult lately because of the stiffness, her cover slipped off and she saw that her wound had gone to rust, the skin cracked to expose what lay beneath, the edges green.
       She’d been housed in this room for all of her twelve years. In that span there had been only two others like her, both regressing just as she was doing now, ragged flesh coloring on the afternoon of the first day, swelling the second, fissuring the third. How long the men would wait was not a question. They had taken the others on the third day. Today they would come for her.
       Emma, the one who had dwelled here longest, stood before her. Miriam accepted the offered hand and raised herself, and the elder, who was smooth and dark, touched her shoulder. She was sitting there, just so, as the others creaked through the low opening to the outside, the last, Emma, switching off the overhead and tying back the greasy canvas curtain to let in the morning gray.
       The room lightened to brown—brown walls, with here and there a brown electrical outlet; a brown workbench stocked with a small electric heater, three cans of oil, and a terra cotta bowl half-filled with nuts and machine bolts mostly rusted past use. Miriam reached into the space between the wall and metal side rail of her rack and drew out a cylinder of solder. She held it up for the light. One of the men—alone, looking all around him—had come to the pen the other day and beckoned. She was obliged to finish the morning feeding, but it was also necessary to heed the men, and she obeyed. He reached right through between the rails, then, and touched her. Moments later, after she was permitted to step back, he tossed beyond her reach something silver, then sauntered off, two other men having just emerged into the gray light of the barn doorway. Miriam went to fetch it, and it happened before she was aware it could—just in an instant, a tug, and then…down. It took time to clear the pen. Then she’d been walked outside and made to idle on a spare feed trough until the dusk.
       From outside came the grating of wheels on sand. She returned the solder to its nook and ran a palm over her knee. A man crawled into the room, peering until his eyes adjusted and he could see her sitting at her rack, submissive. He put on the light. Two more entered. There was a tightening in her, for the second was the one who touched.
       The men plugged cords into the outlets and took readings from their black meters. One with no eyebrows approached. He stood resting his cotton work gloves against his hips. She held still and he knelt. He touched the skin near the wound, then drew a penlight from the pocket of his coveralls and examined her. At her thigh she sensed the whisper of his breath, in her sternum the cold of his steel probe. A red lamp blinked on his meter. Before, it had always been the amber.
       One of them—that man—held out an army blanket. She felt herself raised by the elbows, the scratch of the wool being draped around her. They laid her on the clay footing and dragged her to the opening. Two men hauled by the head and shoulders. The others pushed from within. Outside, she was distracted by the cawing of some wheeling gulls. She could smell the salt musk of them. What would it be, to fly?
She dangled just over the ground, the men clutching her wrists and ankles. One of them stripped the hasps from the tailgate of the wagon and tried to pull it open, but the damp had jammed the wood. She was tossed over the side instead.
       Four of them took the seats in front. The other, the one she knew from the corral, lay down with her in the bed. She recalled what he’d given her, but they were moving, and she knew they wouldn’t stop to retrieve it, and that her elders needed it anyway. And so they rolled, the squealing of the hubs and the wobble of the wheels fresh sensations—this was Miriam’s first time in the wagon.
       When it stopped, while the men ate, she envisioned the town. None of her hutmates had ever been back to it either, so the place was only conjectured. She expected variously colored structures, some of them stone, some larger than the barn.
       One of the men came to offer her a leg he’d cut from an animal—burnt, the sour smell overpowering. When she declined, he pointed at her and changed his face. The sideboard was high and she couldn’t see, but from the others came laughter.
       Another flight, of geese this time, passed so high she couldn’t hear them, could only record the dark and flash of their wings. They flew south, the same way the wagon was headed. There was something about them that called her. She felt she belonged to them. Felt a certain affinity.
The men boarded, and they rolled again. She thought of Emma. If Miriam were well, the two of them would be finishing the second feeding together even now. She would take care to keep order, maintain the requisite distance from the animals. The programs all warned against distraction. Feeding was to be taken seriously. One must keep engaged.
       New smells—of water the wheels lifted from the mud, and of…smoke, she thought, though it was different from the smoke of the farm—metallic. She began almost to recognize it—something from before memory. Then a sudden turning, a stop, and the nickering of the horse intervened. The men hammered the tailgate unstuck. They slid her across the splintered bed. They lifted her as before. The buildings were of wood. They were no bigger than the farmhouse, and there were many fewer than consensus presumed.
       They proceeded through a swinging double door. The several men inside had just been doing something, she could feel it, something they wouldn’t perform in her view. When she came in, they stopped, tucked a glinting object under the table, and looked blithely on as she was carried to the far end of the room and lain on the high counter. Near her, against the wall, were bottles, hundreds—clear, amber, blue, green, rose, red.
The men gathered. The touching one drew back a fold of her blanket. All of them nodded. A couple of them looked away. The largest wedged close, grimaced, and peeled the blanket further. She reached but she couldn’t recover herself.
       And then six of them carried her feet-first through a side door into a musty room packed with metal containers and what back at the farm passed for spare parts. Junk, Miriam thought—bolts, screws, wire guides, caulk, bits of spent solder, Bakelite circuit boards, old motors, broken servos, metal screening. They slung her onto a workbench, and all but one stepped outside. He brought an empty steel drum from the corner and put it beside her. He plugged an orange cord into a wall outlet, taped wires to her forehead, looked at his wristwatch. He picked up her left ankle and pulled. Then he frowned and went away.
       When he came back, he sprayed her hip with something cool and tried again. Off her leg came, easily. He bent it at the knee and wedged it into the trash container, then pried open one of the smaller cans. The contents were dark brown. Though it wasn’t really the same, the smell was strong. It reminded her of the honey hut back home. He began at her remaining foot and moved upward, rubbing until she was thickly coated to the top of her head.
       Finished, he wiped his hands, stuffed his used rag in her now empty hip, wrote on a clipboard that hung by a string from a cup hook, and turned out the light. The door rattled shut behind him.
       No windows.
       She thought it was something to do with the wires that commenced the faint chirrup inside her—a rhythm within her rhythm, the timbre thickening into a sensation never sensed before. Something fluttered. She felt herself go light, then, and rise.



the gift

w.p. osborn