Fiction

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Some days I just can’t seem to focus. It’s hard to concentrate on what’s going on around me, on what I’m doing.

 

It’s been getting worse lately. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed from the moment I wake up in the morning, as though something bad is going to happen.

 

I can’t breathe right; my hands and feet are cold. My head hurts.

 

I feel like everything I do from sunup to sundown is just to keep this bad thing from happening. And every day I have to do more and more. It is exhausting. Nothing that I do is ever enough.

 

I feel like I’m always being watched.

 

I hate being watched.

 

 

Emil is running after his slum kids, panting in the noonday sun, loosening the high collar of his shirt as he goes.

The children urge him on, their voices shrill with agitation.

‘Not much further, Father Emil! Over here! This way, just a little more.’

His fear grows with each step. It tastes like rust, feels gritty like dirt in his mouth.

The stench from the sea of garbage around them is overpowering. It rained last night and, now that the sun is out, the dump is steaming. Awful vapours rise lazily with the heat: wet paper and rot and excrement mixing in a soup of odours around them, above them.

You’d think by now you’d be used to this, he tells himself, but you’re not. One never gets used to this.

At last they come to a small space about five feet in diameter, where the garbage has been cleared away to expose the older, compost-like layer beneath.

‘There!’ One of the children points.

Even before he looks in the direction indicated by the thin forefinger, he detects it, a new note of putrescence amongst all the putrescences mingling in the unwholesome air.

A small, thin, pale hand protrudes from beneath the garbage.

‘Mother of God,’ he mutters under his breath. He turns to the children. ‘Quick, get me a long stick.’

Three children immediately come forward, offering him the digging sticks they use to poke through the garbage. He takes one and walks grimly towards their discovery.

He is about to begin when suddenly a flash of concern stabs through the grey, slow-moving haze of fear. He stops, turns around and tells the children to leave.

‘No, Father Emil,’ they say, first one voice, then many voices. ‘We’ll stay with you,’ and in their faces a kind of quiet determination and sympathy so grown-up it startles him.

Secretly he is glad of the company. He does not repeat the order, and turns, face set, to the business at hand.

All right. Here we go then.

He begins to root through great clumps of garbage, and slowly the thing begins to emerge. He tries not to look at it yet – although he already knows what it is. He won’t look until he has more or less cleared away the refuse above and around it.

When he is done, the body of a child has emerged. It is a boy about eight to ten years old, though it is difficult for Emil to tell the age accurately. Even at fourteen or fifteen most of these kids are small, very small, owing to malnutrition and disease.

It is lying face down in the muck, and completely naked.

The smell of it, now the dominant note in the vile broth of rot-smells, it hangs heavy and horrible in the air.

Flies like fat, shiny blue-black beads, buzz insistently around the body.

Emil cannot see any marks or wounds on the back, or on the back of the head. Afraid to touch the corpse, he slides one end of the stick underneath the body, just beneath the chest, and uses it as a lever to turn the body over. The deadweight almost breaks the stick in two.

And then he sees it.

The sudden silence among the children is odd. In fact, the whole world seems to Emil to have fallen silent. The neighbourhood sounds and the traffic noise from the highway have faded to a strange low rumble in his ears.

The front of the child’s body seems to be moving, and it takes the priest a few seconds to comprehend that there are maggots in it, thousands of them. And gaping wounds – no, holes – in the chest and stomach.

Emil realizes the heart has been removed, the child eviscerated. The genitals are missing.

He looks at the face. Please God let the face remind me this used to be a human being. Another few seconds and he realizes the face is gone, as though it has been scraped off, leaving a mess of jellied eyeball and bone protruding here and there through muscle. Hard to make sense of what is missing, what is left.

Purple-brown scabs on the child’s knees; tangible memories, perhaps, of an afternoon’s rough play.

The spell breaks abruptly; the children run terrified and screaming from the clearing, leaping goat-like over the garbage.

Emil turns, staggering away from the body, and throws up until his stomach feels completely empty. It does not seem enough; he still feels sick, and forces his throat to constrict several times to no avail.

Through the tears that stream from his eyes, he sees that three of the older children have remained. They come towards him now, wordlessly take him by the hand, and lead him out quietly, gently, through the garbage.

 


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