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The Laborer

The following article is the second in a series of three. It is an excerpt from a novel the author is writing. The book tells the story of a handful of people that are swept along as a small country undergoes change seeking rebirth and prominence on the world stage. The darker aspects of such aspirations are explored: violence as the nation frees itself from the shackles of its past, displacement of countless laborers from poorer countries seeking opportunity in a hostile land and illegal trafficking in persons. All rights to publication, distribution and reproduction in any form belong to the author. “I cannot get home.

There is no way.”

“We will help you.”

Word travels across continents and oceans. News of death in families cannot be hidden no matter the distance. He knew already in his heart. The confirmation of his father’s passing was a mere formality.

No break for the men. Neither weekend nor catastrophe provides rest. The holy days peppered throughout the year are the sole respite; through no sense of compassion to the laborers do the sponsors yield the day.

And the work goes on. 0430 the bus arrives. Sometimes it is early; it leaves as soon as it is full. The men best not be late because missing one day of work is justification for deportment. So they go early to their pick up spot, but the bus is usually late.

They have no jackets and huddle against each other to fend off the morning frost. Their blue denim jumpers billow with each gust of wind. The rails inside that serve for limbs rattle and knees knock. No one complains. You can get warm in the cold. You cannot get cold in the heat.

The men pile into the van for the hour long ride to the work site. For the privilege of the ride it is compulsory that they pay the driver, just as they have to pay for their jumper and their lodging and all other services provided by their sponsor. Work begins promptly upon arrival.

They mix concrete and gather rebar. The sun is fully risen by 0800 and the cold is forgotten. The heat announces its presence initially with a sense of mild discomfort where rays alight on exposed skin. Other parts wait. Within an hour sweat covers the entire body.

Another hour and the sweat is gone. It is too hot for moisture to remain. At this juncture the sun is not felt in specific spots; rather the body is pressed on all sides.

Another hour and all objects radiate heat and scald the hands of the men. New arrivals suffer through this rite of passage. Skin turns to blister turns to callous. Over the span of a few weeks fingers grow thick like mittens with the hardened protective shell.

By mid-afternoon the heat is all consuming. You cannot see the sun as a separate entity as in western skies. Here in the desert the heat unifies all elements. It comes from the sky, the ground, and the rocks. It is oppressive and you cannot lift your head to gaze at the majesty of the mountains. There is no beauty for these men in this land, anyway. There is no contrast. They shuffle about from task to task, eyes in front with the only sense of humanity the incidental contact of fingers as they pass bricks to their fellow laborer.

***

“I don’t want to go.”

“You must. We all know this.”

Gopal stood in the back of the airport screening area with his three friends. They had given a week’s wage to share a cab to see him off. It was a holiday, a rare day off from work.

There is always a way to pay for things. At least once. Gopal had left his home with dreams of earning a living. No notions of a better life, just the choice to work over starvation. The promise of work in this far away place was the catalyst for the journey but the journey was never an adventure for the participant.

Gopal’s eyes are still down, his head lowered. They are out of the heat but his bowed posture is as much a fixture of his temperament now as it is a reflex to the climate.

“We will miss you.”

“I cannot come back.”

They stood close to one another. Local men walked through the area with their flowing robes and took no notice of the cluster of laborers. The palaces that spring from these sands will last for ages. They will pay testimony to the grandeur of their visionaries. The anonymity of the laborers that build the magnificent structures is as inevitable as the divide between the wealth of their sponsors and their own standard of living.

There is no equality in the world; it is not a birthright of every person. Perhaps this is not a tragedy. Gopal spent his time working to build a better future for this land. Though the land was not his he participated in something larger than himself and stayed in the company of other honest men.

They huddled together in the final moments but never said goodbye. Holding each other, they knew an intimacy greater than the men who called them to this country would ever experience. For a moment, their hearts were lifted out of this desert and their spirits rose. They had never asked anything of anyone. While they do not serve out of a sense of sacrifice, they still benefit from the joy of common purpose. Their labor is rewarded in the end by their shared sense of going though life together. You are born. You work. You die.

February 9, 2009
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