There was a rock in Alan Gunnel’s boot but he was too nervous to try and dig it out. Bruce Finch meanwhile was holding in a bowel movement and Ryan Kaczka was thinking what it would take to knock down all the trees and build a race track. It was Mrs. Corbin’s idea the men should all hold shovels, so the Ouranoi knew they meant business, she said, but also so they could better tell the laborers apart from the ambassadors and the television crew. When the men weren’t looking toward the sky they were scanning the rocks and the scrub. Tom Dietrich had found an old rifle casing so now everybody was on the lookout for some piece of the battle, some memento to bridge the gap between theirs and their grandfather’s generation, to assure them that, yes, despite growing fatter and softer and never having to worry about war or hunger, they were still the same species of man. Ed Finch, who was Bruce’s cousin, thought he saw something glinting in the weeds but it was just the sun on the dew.
It was 8:55 when one of the television crew pointed it out, a faint, dark spot puttering across the blue. Mrs. Corbin and the government people all put themselves in order, to which Charlie Stern, the foreman, commanded his men to do the same. Standing up straight, resituating their collars and gripping their shovels, they brushed up against that feeling of being a soldier. They watched the ship carve an elegant streak of white above the mountains then double back on itself as it descended, toward a patch of ground that’d been stamped out ahead of time into a landing pad. As it set down there was none of the jostling or general rickety quality of an earth ship; it moved like a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The ship sat there a minute, humming, a sheen of ice still clinging to the hull. The television crew seemed to have a hard time photographing it.
The engine quit and the ship opened and the first one out lead the way in acclimating to the planet, a process of opening what counted for his nose and mouth in such a way it looked like he was warbling a silent, impassioned aria. Pete Calabrese said to Alan Gunnel it was the ugliest looking thing he’d ever seen.
When that first one was finished he turned and signaled the rest to follow. They were five in all, not counting the pilot. One of the Ouranoi was markedly older than the others and had to be helped to acclimate by his nurse. There were deep pale scars knotting up the left side of his face and while the others all looked like they were singing he looked like he was screaming. It took him longer to get his breathing right, but once he did he settled into a deep, bovine repose. He scratched his chest as if to fondle the air in his lungs and observed the place, the people, like it was all just an obstacle to him taking a nap.
Mrs. Corbin, flanked by her attaché, stepped forward and, unsure of who to address first, spread her deference equally among the Ouranoi. She had a clear, ingratiating voice and a daring, cards on the table smile, but enough sense not to stray too far into whatever body language wasn’t included in an Ouranoi handbook for Earth custom. One of the Ouranoi, the leader in breathing the air, identified himself and a partner as from the government. Ouranoi speak English like it pains them, like they’re spitting hot coals from their tongue. Their voice, their appearance, was such that, the war aside, it was, according to men like Ryan Kaczka, only natural to be prejudice against them, the way a boot is prejudice against the spider. A shudder ran through him as the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors shook hands, as they rubbed their legs together like each was one half of a cricket.
“The women,” he said, pointing to the Ouranoi nurse. “A friend of mine says the women click their teeth like castanets when you touch them just right.”
He got some of the other men to laugh but then Charlie Stern overheard and upbraided him. He’d fought tooth and nail for the contract, he said, and wouldn’t let anyone ruin it.
The introductions, the formalities, were all rather painstaking. The tenor could never be too patriotic, nor to conciliatory, nothing that might upset or suggest weakness in one side or the other. It was warm milk to the television crews, who were after even just a sliver of the bombs, the death. They trained the majority of their cameras the majority of the time on the worn and ravaged face of the old Ouranoi man, who never spoke nor was made to speak. After the introductions the Earth and Ouranoi delegates went off on their own and the old Ouranoi man, his nurse, and what turned out to be his son, sat beside their ship, passing back-and-forth what appeared to be some kind of dried fruit. The son kept leaning across the nurse to speak in a hurried patter at his father, to which the old Ouranoi man, maintaining a dreamy gaze out over the field, would languidly flex the fins at the top of his head, what counted for the Ouranoi nod. Rob Lingenfelter was trying to listen in but could only make out every other word. His grandfather had been a translator during the war.
“Something about money,” he said. “Something about money and somebody’s mother or something.”
The men stood at some distance under a nylon canopy, smoking cigarettes and on the whole in generally good spirits for so far getting paid to stand around doing nothing. Alan Gunnel finally dug the rock out of his boot and Bruce Finch went to use the bathroom.
“Now he’s saying something about the weather. Something about the air. Don’t know if it’s complementary or not.”
“All sounds like mush to me,” said Ryan Kaczka.
“A lot of it’s just the same couple of sounds and once you get those you can start picking up on things.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to learn I just said it sounded like mush.”
“I’m going to go try and talk to them.”
The other men all watched Rob Lingenfelter stub out his cigarette, fix his hair. He was young and excitable, irritating in an admirable sort of way. He had screws in his leg from a four wheeling accident and was half deaf in one ear from standing too close to a homemade firework.
“Charlie said not to bother them,” said Alan Gunnel.
“Not going to bother them I’m just going to talk to them. I never met one before.”
The other men wanted to see what would happen and gave up trying to reel him in. The son of the old Ouranoi man frowned as he approached; the nurse crossed her legs. Rob Lingenfelter greeted them first in English then in Ouranoi, then stuck out his hand, which the son shook, the nurse squeezed, and the old man observed a moment, as if some curious piece of driftwood, then took in both of his. The old Ouranoi man whispered something over their grasp.
“What’d he say?” asked Rob Lingenfelter. “I didn’t catch all that.”
The son muttered a reply but Rob Lingenfelter couldn’t understand that either.
“Do any of you speak English? I know some Ouranoi but not enough. My granddaddy was a translator and he––”
Rob Lingenfelter didn’t know he was speaking as loud as he was. He was used to speaking like that because of his ear, because he spent all day working with loud machinery. The nurse plugged her ears and turned away from him. The son waved a hand and let slip a war-time insult, which was, unluckily, one of the couple dozen words in Rob Lingenfelter’s Ouranoi vocabulary.
“Come again?” He observed the nurse, the son. The old Ouranoi man seemed to’ve already forgotten him and was staring somewhere off into the distance. “Do any of you speak English?” He tried them in their own language but the reaction wasn’t any better. “Alright then,” he said. “Alright,” and went away a lot less enthusiastically than he arrived. He rejoined the men and lit another cigarette.
“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.
“Couldn’t understand them. Just a bunch of mush.”
At noon the work got underway. The old Ouranoi man, supported by his nurse and his son at either elbow, lead Ms. Corbin, the Ouranoi attaché, Charlie Stern, and an ever dwindling cavalcade of television crews to the top of a grassy hill, where, the wind buffeting his frail and withered form, he contemplated the land a moment, then pointed far afield and muttered to his son, who relayed the message to the Ouranoi attaché.
“Down beside that tree,” said the attaché. “That’s where they’re buried.”
The earth was rocky and hard to dig. There was a certain pace and delicacy the men adhered to and they never spoke except about the job at hand. At some point Ted Moore strained his back and had to go sit down, and took the time to smoke a cigarette and make a phone call to his wife.
“What’s that man doing?” said the son of the old Ouranoi man, by way of translator.
“I’m not sure,” said Ms. Corbin. “Resting I think.”
And that started the young Ouranoi off on a tear, that if it’d ever gotten back to the men, had the power to end the day right there. Ms. Corbin tried to placate him, to assure him how serious they were taking everything, but found much of her power, all her little charms and mannerisms, ineffectual outside her species. When the young Ouranoi finally suggested she herself go and take up a shovel in place of the man, and when the Ouranoi attaché made no move to try and help her, she went and, hellfire in her eyes, proceeded to chew out Charlie Stern, who in turn went and made Ted Moore get up and at least pretend like he was digging.
In a few hours the men had dug a neat, chest-high square of earth, about the size of a middle-class swimming pool. While they’d yet to say so out loud, something like a consensus was forming in their bodies–in their increased slouch, their slowing down. It was Ryan Kaczka, leaning against his shovel, who finally said it:
“Hey, I don’t think there’s anything down here.”
And like a spell was broken the men all at once quit digging and mumbled their agreement.
Charlie Stern consulted Ms. Corbin, Ms. Corbin the Ouranoi attaché, the Ouranoi attaché the old man and his son. The old Ouranoi man seemed come over by a sudden restlessness, and after looking down into the earth a moment, away towards the mountains, adjourned with his nurse and son into a nylon enclosure put up on their behalf.
The men meanwhile went and ate lunch. It started to rain and they retreated under the canopy, where, clustered together, they smoked and ate and talked.
“I don’t mind them being here. But why do they have to stand around watching us like that while we’re trying to work?”
“That noise they keep making, like they’re gasping for air–freaks me out.”
“Did you hear what I said to that one?”
“He kept making that noise and finally I said to him, ‘Can I get you a cough drop or something?’ And he just looked at me like he wanted to climb down and choke me to death.”
“That’s them still getting used to the air.”
“And I understand that, but hell, I cover my mouth when I cough, I say excuse me after I sneeze.”
Charlie Stern came in from the rain and shook out his umbrella. He rubbed his hands together and took stock of the men, considered how best to broach them. He always told them the truth. “Alright,” he said. “There’s been a bit of a mix-up. We’ve been digging in the wrong spot.”
“How’s that?” said Ryan Kaczka. “We dug where the old bug pointed.”
“Well it turns out he might’ve remembered it wrong.”
The men all bristled and threw their hands in the air. They stubbed out their cigarettes. Each spoke for the other as they wondered aloud why the old Ouranoi man hadn’t remembered sooner, before they’d spent hours digging. They lamented their backs, their knees.
“Have some sympathy,” said Charlie Stern. “Folks get old and they can’t remember things like they used to. He says he remembers now. We’re just going to go out and do it right this time.”
So the men donned ponchos and went out into the rain, and dug where the old Ouranoi man said to. The mud was heavier than the dirt and the men kept slipping or alternatively getting stuck. The son of the old Ouranoi man asked why the work was going so slow to which Ms. Corbin said they were going as fast as they could. When that wasn’t good enough he tried giving the men orders himself, in a garbled English, Ouranoi hybrid, and had to be led away by the Ouranoi delegates. Meanwhile, the old Ouranoi man continued his silent vigil, watching, along with his nurse, from under an umbrella. Bruce Finch worried about him slipping and falling into the hole, or about accidentally wanging him with a shovel, and tried asking him to back up. The old Ouranoi man simply blinked at him, the picture of an ancient tortoise.
In time the rain let up and quit and revealed the sun started on its descent. The men had dug in until the earth came up over their heads and yet again, like the last time, had nothing to show for it. The old Ouranoi man, it seemed, had made another mistake. “He hasn’t gotten enough sleep, you see,” said the Ouranoi attaché. “What with the flight and all that preparation, he just hasn’t gotten enough sleep is all, so his mind is, what would you say, a little fuzzy.”
So the old Ouranoi man did like the last time and disappeared for a little while then returned and pointed out what he was sure, what the translator said he was sure, was the correct spot, and the men, after complaining not a little, continued digging. When that hole came up empty they were harangued into digging another, then when that one, another. They begged to use any little bit of machinery to make the job easier but were told it would be too unsentimental, that it might damage what they were trying to excavate. This was a matter of nations, they were told, of diplomacy. This was bigger than them or how tired they were or if their food had gone cold at home, this was how fortunes were made, how international crises, yes even wars, were averted. Charlie Stern demanded to speak with the old Ouranoi man and tried asking him if they were digging in the right spot. “I can’t keep running the guys around like this,” he pleaded. “I need to know we’re eventually going to get somewhere. I need to hear it from you. I need to hear it from you we’re not just wasting our time.”
The Ouranoi attaché passed the message to the old Ouranoi man. The old Ouranoi man squinted at the foreman as if to penetrate a fog or a long distance.
“He says he’s sure,” said the Ouranoi attaché. “He says he knows for sure now this is where they’re buried.”
The men continued working into the night. The television crews had all gone home and the government people were off doing something else so the men could speak without having to stop and think of who might overhear.
“You know what I just realized?”
“I realized what they’re making us do all this for.”
“This is all just part of it, to make us feel bad. To make us feel guilty.”
“Guilty for what? I didn’t do anything.”
“I wasn’t even born then.”
“You think the old bug’s jerking us around on purpose?”
“Him or the government. We made fools of them. Now they have to make fools of us.”
“It’s not like they was hard to make fools of. I’d think they was animals if not for that ship.”
“Hell even animals can do tricks.”
Meanwhile another conversation was taking place between the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors. Ms. Corbin had fallen on picking at her nails, had given up on smiling and attempting a good impression. She was relieved when one of the Ouranoi brought it up first.
“We could just say we found them,” he said. “Whether we do or not we can just say we did. Do you think your people would go for that?”
Ms. Corbin leaned back in her chair, brushed a piece of lint from her trousers. “I don’t see why not. But what about the old man and his family?”
“We can work it out with them, I’m sure.”
They talked it over and then the old Ouranoi man’s son was brought in and had the situation explained to him. When he heard there would be no more digging he flew into a rage, cursing the Earth and Ouranoi delegates alike, shouting and beating his fists on the table until his breathing slipped into deacclamation and he started choking and sputtering on the air. He stumbled to his knees, was helped to regroup, then abandoned himself to the Ouranoi’s closest equivalent to weeping.
“You said you would help,” he wailed. “You said you would help him! My father wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He screams and he wets himself and then I have to hold him while he cries. I have to cradle him in his own urine and rock him back to sleep like a baby. He wakes up in the middle of the night and calls out the names of the same twelve men so that now even I have them memorized!” He went on to list those twelve Ouranoi men. “You said you would help him! You promised!
The Ouranoi attaché listened patiently then translated for Ms. Corbin, who nodded along like she was being read a grocery list. Really she was very understanding, she said, but there was only so much they could do.
Outside, the old Ouranoi man’s nurse stood beside him and watched the digging. The Earth men looked like ghosts moving in and out of the light, like she might rub her eyes and they would be gone. She’d never been on another planet before–had barely gotten to know the old man and his son. She tried calling her sister but the connection was too choppy. She tried making friends with the old man but he was always off in some malaise. One of the Earth men cut his hand and his blood in the light made her gasp, made her step back and comb for any similar breach in herself. The Earth man climbed out of the hole in the ground and went off into one of the tents and witnessing his injury, however slight, was witnessing some of the battle, the war, leaking out of time and into the present. The nurse observed the old man. The scars in his face looked like a network of rivers and tributaries. He could barely keep his eyes open and his breathing was slow. The nurse observed the Earth men as they went on digging regardless of one of theirs bleeding.
She went and heated up a bowl of water and tried handing it to one of the Earth men, so that they might pass it around. He looked up at her from inside the earth and his eyes were black and hollow. He regarded her as something expelled from him––snot, shit, piss. “What?” he said. “What do you want me to do with that? I don’t know what you want. What do you want me to do with that?” His language sounded like the flamboyant circumnavigation of an alphabet, like needless complication.
She urged the water on him and a bit spilled out onto his boot. He jerked the bowl from her and threw it off somewhere into the dark then resumed digging like she wasn’t there. A few of the other Earth men piped up in support of him, in derision of her, then followed suit in pretending like she’d already gone away. The nurse returned to the old man and tried talking to him, tried asking him how he was doing, but he was too preoccupied watching the digging, or at least in its direction.
The men, in a kind of delirium, took to singing. Radio songs, folk songs, television commercial jingles; all brassy and full, barely coherent at times, remarkably so at others. Some–Ms. Corbin, the Ouranoi attaché¬¬–took the singing for a renewed levity in the men, while others–the foreman, the nurse–identified something portentous in their voices, some unified conjuring of old and malignant spirits. Their shovels struck the earth in time with their singing and echoed the camaraderie of the old chain gangs. Their sweat in the flood lights made each of them shine like the dew on the grass. One of the television crew, by way of drone, came back around and trained an eye on the men, and produced a microphone like a proboscis. Thus encouraged, the men sang louder, with wilder abandon. They mugged for the camera, they danced, they dug.
There was no telling who started it, if it had been conspired about ahead of time. It began with a single voice, then two, then three, then in the span of the first line of the first verse was taken up by all the men. Their grandfathers had sung it, in conditions such as this, with the same zest. They only knew but the one version, the more vulgar offshoot.
My mom says not to worry ’bout the ugly Our-ni horde
Daddy’s joined the army and he’s off to win the war
He’s going to show the buggos just what Earth man might is for
His boots are marching on!
Glory, glory, stomp the buggos!
Glory, glory, stomp the buggos!
Glory, glory, stomp the buggos!
His boots are marching on!
Charlie Stern came running when he heard. Ms. Corbin bolted upright and clutched her breast. The men’s voices swelled, their shovels gouged the earth. They were tapped into powers they hadn’t even known were lost, moved to claims of blood and land only ever withheld because they were never exercised properly or often enough in the first place. They sang the first verse, the second and more vulgar one, and then when they couldn’t remember the third, started all over again. The news drone hovered overhead and in a moment was joined by another.
The Ouranoi were not especially knowledgeable of all the little insults or offenses the Earth had for them. The nurse, knowing a little more than the old Ouranoi man, tried leading him away but was unable to move him, like he was grafted to the spot. He smiled faintly, the fins on the top of his head gently oscillating. A shovelful of dirt landed at his feet but he seemed either not to notice or to mind. He was such that, when the men’s singing finally broke down, and one by one their voices faltered, their silence seemed but an accessory to his own, their belated conversion to his monastery. Bill Boyette was the one to find it, and once he was certain what it was, dropped to his knees and used his hands to dig it the rest of the way out. The bone belonged to either an arm or a leg and was so light, felt so much like a piece of old, dry wood that Bill was sure that was what it was until he cleared away more of the dirt. When Charlie Stern arrived red-faced and out of breath he found the men all huddled together, mumbling. He was starting on yelling at them when one of them turned and held up the bone for him to see.
“There more?” he asked.
They continued digging until it was oftener they struck bone or shrapnel than not, then got on their hands and knees to do the finer work of uncovering something without breaking it. A couple dozen tarps were laid down and while they tried to complete a skeleton where they could, some of the bones were so mixed up it was hard to tell what belonged where. Rob Lingenfelter held an Ouranoi skull up to the light and some of the dirt poured from the eye sockets and onto his face so that he spent the rest of the night trying to spit the taste from his mouth. A chair was brought for the old Ouranoi man and he sat and presided over the bones while his son took up lording over the digging. The nurse wept.
By sunrise there were twenty-two mostly completed skeletons laid out on the ground and a jumble of bones amounting to at least a dozen more. Some of them there was evidence for how they died, where they’d been shot, stabbed, burned, blown up. Some of them were still wearing their tags while some were missing or illegible. There hadn’t been time, the old Ouranoi man said, to bury them individually, or with too much care. There was another bombing on their position and there hadn’t been time.
Ryan Kaczka tried to pocket a piece of old Ouranoi cutlery but then it fell out where everyone could see. Bruce Finch meanwhile couldn’t stop making the sign of the cross. The men made covert attempts at trying to reconcile Ouranoi bones with Ouranoi bodies, looking between the skeletons and the nurse, the son, the old man and trying to fit one to the other. They forgot they were hungry, tired, angry. Ms. Corbin watched and admired the men like they were extensions of her own body. The Ouranoi attaché discussed the old man and the bones like pieces in a chess game.
After the bones were dug up they had to be wrapped and carried into the ship and after that a prayer, relayed by satellite, recited by an Ouranoi priest. The old Ouranoi man bowed his head. The nurse continued weeping. The prayer, said Ryan Kaczka, sounded like someone was stirring a bowl of macaroni, but by then he couldn’t get anyone to laugh. Alan Gunnel crushed his hat in his hands. Bruce Finch stifled a yawn. After the prayer a few more little speeches were made on behalf of the redoubled television cameras. The Ouranoi attaché thanked the men for all their work. Ms. Corbin made broad, syrupy odes to peace and progress.
By then the old Ouranoi man, his son, and the nurse were already tucked away inside the ship, waiting to leave. Some of the men tried looking in on them to say goodbye, to attempt one last good impression on behalf of themselves, the Earth, their grandfathers. But whatever feeling or peace of mind they hoped to come away with never really manifested. The old man presided over the bones of his fallen comrades like a bird over a nest, while his son pretended not to know the least bit of English. The nurse at least made an attempt but then again her Ouranoi smile looked an awful lot like an Earth grimace. So the men gathered round, with shovels in hand so they were more recognizable, and watched the ship lift off in a streak of heat and flame and disappear over the mountains. Charlie Stern passed around a bottle of ibuprofen to anyone that wanted one then they shambled to their cars, to home, to bed. That night they watched themselves on the news. They told secondhand war stories. They talked about war like it was but one long prologue to the men who cleaned up after it.
Aaron Ward is a horse.