The camp workers were primarily children. Males who seemed old enough to have something else to remember made up maybe ten percent of the whole, Henry figured, leaving about a quarter for grown women. Henry was solidly a minority, which had shocked him on the first day of grueling work but had eventually seemed sensible when Henry considered how often the men complained in comparison to their smaller and supposedly weaker cohorts. One man, not too long a resident by the looks of him, had feigned an injury a couple of weeks into Henry’s tenure. Somewhere in a mess of crumbling rocks he’d yelled out, fallen to the ground, and frantically grasped his leg, the tears and snot turning his fellows’ work to mud beneath him. Several of the children had crowded around him, curious; but their gentle probing, a hundred tiny fingers floating over the dry skin of his ankle, gave him a sounder tickling than he could withstand, and by the time a force rep got to him he was a writhing fetus of laughter, swatting the little mitts away.
Parts of the man were used in the construction of the next day’s wall building segment.
The children laughed. He was a funny man.
Henry slept just a few hours at night, and a few hours again in the afternoons. Just like everyone else. The women said the sleeping schedule had been devised for the sake of the children, who “needed naps”. The men said it kept everyone on their feet but always in a kind of sleepy stupor, less willing or able to make a break for it. Henry didn’t know who was right, but he didn’t think it mattered much. In fact, he liked the schedule; neither nocturnal nor diurnal, a snooze always on the horizon. He didn’t dream, and he never woke up worried that his waking would obligate him; a slave of the present, threats against his future made no purchase. The work lulled him into truer rest than he had ever really known.
But then, the work did other things, too. His posture, before a thing he never paid attention to, was slumped, and his hair was falling out in patches. He had lost a lot of weight –how much, he wasn’t sure, but his knees were definitely knobbier. Sometimes before naps he brushed his hand over his stomach, feeling the bones of his ribs and hips. He thought about Ralph, then, whose sentence had been so much lighter. His belly, paunchier. He wondered where the schmuck was now, gabbing up innocent bystanders no doubt, terrorizing the youth with irresponsible palettes.
One of the favorite topics for complaint around the camp, especially among the children, was the food. It wasn’t so much that it was terrible, but rather, that it was so terribly uninteresting. No matter the day, no matter the meal, food was extruded protein cake in a thin batter, fried. The canteen had the indecency to propose that sometimes they were serving chicken, or veal. Even the children knew better. The stench of the frying oil pervaded everything, became a part of every worker there. It was the first thing Henry smelled upon waking, or upon entering any enclosed space where there were other campers. “You get used to it” was the motto among the adults, repeated too often to be true. Other than sex, peaches and spinach had become Henry’s principal fantasies, tucked into the space between sleeping and wakefulness.
By the start of his third month at the labor camp, Henry no longer felt bad about his predicament. He didn’t feel bad about having been recruited, or about the labor itself. He didn’t feel bad about Wainwright de-wrinkler, or Ralph in his colorblock shirt. Henry didn’t feel much of anything at all, by the start of that third month. His muscles ached with a constancy that made only the very worst spasms register; his hands, cracked and rougher than he’d ever known hands could be, mustered far more eager appreciation for their nightly allowance of moisturizing cream than resentment for their plight. There was a vague sense of loss at any given time, but as he’d gotten used to the experience of it more and more each day, he’d realized it wasn’t really any different than the loss he’d always felt anyhow. If anything, he thought, this sense of loss was better, because understanding it seemed within reach. Closer, with every rock broken and each new brick laid.
Or maybe I’m just losing my mind, he thought.
Henry didn’t feel particularly bad about that, either.