Sardines in a Tin Can
by Wendy Nikel
Scrape. Shift. Shovel. Heave.
Scrape. Shift. Shovel. Dump.
The work is monotonous. Hard. We labor tirelessly without any breaks, though the sun's rays burn us and the shovel's handles rub off the outermost layers of our fingers and palms. The soles of our feet have permanent indentations from where we, barefoot, have pressed our shovels into the soil. We work in a line from sunup to sundown, in perfect synchronization. Those that fall behind the rhythm's drumbeat are dragged away and never seen again.
The overseers will punish us if we talk, not that we'd have anything to talk about anyway, at least not in front of them. What would we say? "Oh, the dirt was awfully hard today, wasn't it?" "Don't you wish it would rain?" "Don't you wish you were anywhere but here, doing anything but scraping and shoveling?"
After the sun sets, they pack us, like sardines, into the tin-roofed shelters which are little more than crumpled boxes of scrap metal. Though they claim that their purpose is to protect us from the elements, the fierce, red dust blows in through the cracks and the sheet metal is no protection from the joint-numbing cold. We're to sleep then; rest, and recharge so that we're ready for the work to begin again at dawn. It's difficult to do when there's no room to stretch out, when each bend of one's body causes discomfort for one's neighbor.
Even when one of us takes the hard knock of a foot in our chest or a knee in the chin, we don't fight back. No, we're smarter than that. We know that's precisely what they'd expect us to do, what they want us to do. They'd rather us fight one another and spend our energy focused inward on whoever has the spot farthest from the icy wind's reach or which of us has received preferential treatment recently from the overseers. (The squeaky wheel gets the oil, after all, even in a place like this.)
This base bickering, though, would keep our minds off the real enemy: those sitting in their air-conditioned towers, high over the rocky plains, sipping their lattes and orchestrating our every move, peering down at us and shouting orders. The overseers with their Tasers, those who laugh when we fall.