We Were Told to Harm the Grass
by Bryan Tarver, 10th October 2022
I no longer imagine emerald blades sharpening harvest fields. I struggle to remember hyena laughs and bicycles sideways along the byway. Back roads twist in memory’s shadow. Trickling creeks lose their cool embrace. I forget the timbre of singsong Sundays, neighbors gathered under maple steeple. Bowing heads for brothers and fathers devoting days to black. Fate relinquished to a higher place. We lived seven-day soliloquies certain of the moment on stage. Deaf to words other than our own.
Incorporated at the turn of the century, our small townsite boomed with the discovery of lead and zinc ore. Tunnels and shafts oozed slick sludge like popped blisters. Mining began quickly. The whirring drill hymned weekend choirs. Machines barked like domesticated dogs. Leash led across the countryside eating with primal innocence. We kept them fat, producing $20 billion worth of ore over thirty years. But for us, the mines extracted pride. The work felt important. Our lead provided half the brass slugs spent liberating European soil, stealing sons from mothers to feed our own. Buffering gaps beneath the Christmas tree. Diligence and toil built this mausoleum, not ignorance or chance, but a commitment purposed for profit.
First came the dust. Daylight billowed in buff. Twilight picnics burned romantic orange and fumes strangled the spring breeze. We didn’t notice, or chose not to. Filled schoolyard sandboxes with mill site muck. Then the creeks closed off. Summertime swims blotted children with rash. The water is still drinkable, they said, but strange men arrived to work the mines. Men who hadn’t walked an Independence Day parade, who couldn’t share a familiar nod, looked through us with stoic indifference. Outsider men. Graves faces confessing nothing. Did they cough? Did their sweat sting in the air? The asphalt bucked on Main Street like compound fractures sprouting bone from earthen skin. Chat piles dominated the ridgeline. Fragmented limestone and dolomite waste mountains, our Himalayas. Soon more nameless men appeared, adorned in Italian cotton instead of azure coveralls. Crowning hardhats to exchange soft handshakes and wild-armed dialogues about the future. White paper crucified the doors of homes and businesses urging abandonment, a mad dash for survival. The mines were closing.
We were reluctant to heed warnings, to disown all we knew. As the mining company dissolved, so did their culpability. Families fled, balding tire tread as church spires shrunk in rearview. Dust found them eventually. Those remaining carried life defiant, embolden by new industry. The native Quapaw tribe sold collected chat as mixing agents for railroad ballast and concrete. Pharmaceutical profits exploited spikes in headaches and fatigue. Auctioned cattle grazed noxious grass and lapped toxic millponds. We hardly ever ate our own cows, but at three-quarters market price butchers flocked across county lines to our patina skies and pestilent fields. The apocalypse was here; we evened out its distribution.
On a slow Valentine’s Day morning the following year, everything changed. According to the police report, Ben and Anna Bergmann’s son Eli was last seen wielding splintered twigs like crusader knights. Teasing smoke wisps beyond the forest’s edge pawed his curiosity and little Bergmann waded into the woods to investigate. What happened exactly remains secret, whispered among the audience of wind and trees and armored black beetles that crawled his withered lips. They found Eli’s body eight-feet deep swallowed in muddy plaster. Carbon monoxide. Silent death. Preying on the fringe, snatching the young. Our world shook like stress tremors that had kept maternal fingers wrapped in rosary. Rippled stronger than slow-drip dystopias eroding the highway. Screamed louder than medical statistics and sunset curfews. We now saw the consequences firsthand—a small pressed suit, a baby blue casket, a silent church.
Exodus exploded full swing. Grocery store shelves lay scavenged and bare. Subsidence furrowed fences. Rooftops scowled like the stubborn elderly watching another taillight speed away. They held nostalgic bonds to that place, the fear of deserting home deadlier than high-levels of cadmium and lead boiling their brains. A bio-accumulating powder keg wicked long enough for hope to fester. Hope is the real disease. Fabricated optimism maintaining the complicit roles we serve in the final cataclysm destined to erase us all. Defining universal uniqueness as simply existing. We’re not special, but deceived into thinking so. Blinded by small sets of data, viewing life through a keyhole. Consider each possible five-card combination from a stack of fifty-two. All are equally improbable and amazing, however, only select sequences are deemed fantastic. Like a royal flush, why is life such a lucky outcome? Its significance thrives on lacking comparisons. Infinite incredible or bizarre formulations of this universe could have occurred, but didn’t, in lieu of all this. This killing. We kill each other; we kill ourselves. Work the death camps, breed in its blood baths. We condemn the gun manufacturer and jail the trigger finger, yet anticipate evening newscasts as reassurance they continue in perfect harmony.
Mistakes are repeated, a testament to our tenacity. The ground webs poison varicose veins. Populations decline with the water supply, stagger drunk off the slaughter. Rivers clog with righteous suicides. Ethics smear and all is simple. I remember those desperate days, time divided into unique atoms used to barter with oblivion. Ghosts hidden under lock and key. Unlatch the cage and let them witness what I’ve done: I’m the gnashing grate of gears. I’m the tailored suit reaping spoils. I’m Eli Bergmann and the birds harmonizing his choked gasps. I’m the song sung with arms outstretched. I’m the answer unreturned. I’m everyone. I’m everyone and I’m alone. Accelerating through the pristine tunnel toward the numenon force that placed me here in an instant, returning to give it all back.