The mud sucked at the wagon’s wheels, persistently clawing at its contents. Argument could be made that the mud had greatest right to the cart’s contents, having until recently laid claim to the bounty it now held.
As dogged, though, was the coach’s driver. He of the lead and the lash. He coaxed the pair of horses along the way, confident enough in his trade to make use of the tongue over the whip.
“Get on,” he’d say thickly through the rag tied around his mouth and nose. “Get on.”
And mostly they did. Like the branches of a macabre tree, the mucky roads all led back to this one. And once the hollow fruit had been plucked from the far-flung ends of the branches, the pair of mares always found their way back to the trunk.
Back to the open-air pits, ever stymied by growing pools of stagnant, rancid water. There the bodies were offloaded from the wagon. Pairs of men would take the deceased and with one at the head and one at the feet, swing the bodies into the thickening stew.
These men had obtained an efficacy that belied the delicacy of their chore. They knew where to grab a corpse so that a rotted limb wouldn’t come free in their hands. They could make instant decisions as to whether to grab it by the shoulders or if a handful of hair would suffice. These observations went unspoken and were the result of unconscious judgments based on the greatest of all teachers, repetition. Outside of their peers, there was no appreciation for their competence. No upward mobility or hope for increased compensation. They were prodigies for the profit of the task and nothing else.
The Driver observed their work dispassionately. He watched the priests walk between the pits, praying as if through the principles of interlocking fields of fire, voices muffled from behind full body hazmat suits. Their loose formation around and in between the pits ensured a saturation of supplication among the uncounted dead.
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.” A clear of the throat and repeat.
And what of those in the purgatory of the pits that didn’t count themselves among god’s children? The Driver had an idea that none of the concerned parties cared. He thought little of the priests, anyhow, who had managed the requisition of hazmat suits while the body bearers had not.
When the pit filled, either with water or cadavers, dirt was dumped on top. The center of each circular pit was marked with an apple tree sapling, a fictive pledge of brighter days to come. These great fields of pits stretched eternal. Uniform lines of thirty-foot apple trees marked the first of the pits filled. It gave a dendrochronological account of a ghoul’s game.
These trees never produced fruit. As if in rebellion to the defaming of the land, the trees refused to bear new life. Perhaps the trees, having grown fast and fat from such a rich fertilizer, had no drive to produce. The teeming dead rotting below them whispered promises of eternal life through the roots of the trees while rendering them infertile with the poisons that covered their skins and saturated their organs.
The Driver shook himself from his perverted reverie. There was not space in this world for such ruminations. As he coaxed the brace around, he let out a deep sigh, not realizing he had been holding his breath.
To explain the genesis of the war was to give credence to any one of several erroneous narratives. Suffice to say, parties that stood to benefit from the conflict oiled the right gears and pushed the right levers. Fervors were whipped and xenophobia left to marinate.
For a time, such parties reaped massive wealth. Political opponents followed the age-old formula of displaying contempt for the war while surreptitiously investing their own wealth into its efforts. They railed on about the curtains while the house burned down around their ears.
The nation’s youth was harvested and transplanted to exotic locale. Their hearts stamped in the blue ink of the nation, certifying them as fit for consumption. They knew only love for each other and often that was enough. They committed a nation’s misdeeds with smiles on their faces and clear consciences. Few would grow old enough to consider the motivations of their youth and none of them would bear fruit.
Sloganeering revealed itself to be the thin armor that it had always been. Easily digestible taglines like, “Fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here” showed their age when the war came home. Now there was no youth to send to the fronts and the old ones that had returned ran for the proverbial hills. Their neighbors were not of their tribe anymore, and no amount of colored ribbon would change their minds.
And so, the Driver plowed on, filling and emptying his wagon. He’d go to bed tired tonight, having done an honest days work. When the sun came up, he’d do it all again. He told himself that when the harvest was done, he’d let the horses loose among the apple trees and spend his days in front of the fire. Sometimes, he even believed it.