By: Harvey Huddleston
A combine harvests the field. It’s a field where something grows, something green and leafy that is consumed by the masses, alfalfa maybe. But the leaves aren’t separate. They cling to one another in a green clump so that no edge is seen where one leaf ends and the next leaf begins. A green clump is shorn off, upended and then pushed to the side as another green clump takes its place.
The field stretches east towards the horizon where there is a line of purple mountains. Maybe they are the Urals or another range not so prominent on western maps.
I am inside the combine, riding in it as this world unfolds. That is a fair way to describe it. Brown earth, blue sky and clumps of green “unfold” before me. A green clump is shorn off, upended and moved aside in one motion as the next green clump takes its place, which is then shorn off, upended and moved aside, a process which is repeated over and over. And all the while I’m inside this combine moving east towards those purple mountains which may or may not be the Urals. How they look doesn’t change and they never get closer. This land is so big that if I went to sleep and woke up tomorrow nothing would be any different. I would still be inside this combine, harvesting this field and moving slowly, inexorably, toward that distant horizon. There is no beginning and no end.
I listen for the Slavik tune and hear it playing. There’s the organ grinder, or maybe a calliope, right on the beat, repeating the melody. I want to go back to where I started, back to where the road went east through the countryside, leading out of Budapest and Prague. Then further back to the city where I first heard this tune. I was on a street corner or in a bar maybe. The musicians were very talented. A violinist and accordionist played as coins dropped into a hat on the floor. Or was it a street corner? In any case, the hat was in front of them, filling up with bills and coins. And then I moved on.
I was in “street view” when I came to the road leading east from the city. It wasn’t crowded so I took the road past the houses and factories to where the countryside began. The houses and factories became fewer until nothing was left but fields with a road running through them. And it was there that I made my mistake.
I wasn’t watching but even if I had been, the Russian border wasn’t marked. It was just a point on the road I was going down. I was now in Russia but not yet inside the combine. That wasn’t until the fields of Alfalfa began with green clumps being shorn off, upended and pushed aside, one after the other. And then I realized that the field and combine weren’t really there at all but were only graphics created by Putin’s web designer to conceal a vast nothingness and to show the world that, even though the real Russia can’t be seen, it’s bigger and stronger and more bountiful than anything we can imagine and will go on like this forever.
The slavic tune plays all around me. The melody is played by Big Guy who stands behind me. I don’t know his real name. He doesn’t say anything but just stands back there playing. When I first heard him I thought he was talking to me, that that was how he talked with his beeps and whistles. And then when the others from the other cubicles answered him I imagined he was telling them about me and they were giving their opinions. Big Guy would say, “So get a load of this one. What do you think?” And the rest would chime in with, “Oh he’s a goner for sure. Never seen a worse case.” And that’s how their conversation would go until I realized that it wasn’t me they were discussing at all; that, in fact, they weren’t even talking but were actually creating music together with their beeps and whistles. They were playing that Slavic tune I know so well.
The tune is not always the same. It changes slightly but I never hear it change. It’s only when I drift off and come back that I realize it’s different. At first I tried humming along. I thought that would be easy but then found that it wasn’t. There’s the basic melody carried by Big Guy and some others nearby but there are also the sub melodies and counterpoints that filter in from every direction and distance until humming along is impossible. Like I said, the melody is easy but then you get so many harmonies from so many different directions that it becomes cacophonous, overwhelming in fact.
Now I just listen without joining in. Besides, I think that Big Guy and the others like it better that way. After all, it’s their music. They played it long before I got here and will play it long after I’m gone. It’s fine to just listen. So long as I don’t wander off into the countryside and take another dangerous detour into Russia.
When you’re incapacitated it’s easy for someone to kill you. You’re at the mercy of anyone who comes along. Take yesterday – I’m sure it was yesterday – there was a commotion down the hall. It sounded like a crowd at a boxing match so I asked the nurse about it. She said there was a big basketball game coming up on TV and then I remembered it was March Madness and that this game had to be the National Championship. It was probably Duke versus Kansas as usual which meant that I didn’t care who won except that if it really was Krzyzewski’s last game as head coach then it would be worth it to watch him lose. Then I thought that no matter who won or lost it sure would be nice to watch a b-ball game down the hall.
But that wasn’t possible so I listened, hoping that the crowd would get louder and start jumping up and down and running around in disbelief that they were witnessing something so spectacular that it would go down in history as the greatest game ever. But then it was obviously a blowout before halftime because the noise down the hall faded fast until it was gone.
But it was what happened just before the game. This guy was rushing down the hall when he suddenly stopped outside my cubicle and looked in. I thought he was looking at me but then I see that he’s trying to see something above and past me. Then he blurts out, “Is it really fucking raining outside?” So I answer, “How would I know if it’s fucking raining outside?” Which made him jump, either because he’d thought I was unconscious or he hadn’t seen me at all in the half dark. He then backs off and hurries off down the hall to watch the game.
But the thing about this guy – and the point I’m trying to make – is that he was looking above and past me to see if it was raining outside and that can only mean one thing. There has to be a window back there behind Big Guy. And if that’s true, then it might explain the mystery that has confounded me since I got here.
Why are they laughing? And what are they laughing at? That’s what I kept asking myself when I awoke from my last operation. And it wasn’t just laughter but the conversation that came with it. How are you? It’s been so long. Did you hear about so and so? I didn’t think it was possible. No one knew. Can you believe it? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… and then more peals of laughter.
That was just one conversation of maybe five or six others. And it wasn’t just a few people glad to see each other but a whole Goddamn party somewhere close enough to hear. But how was that possible? And then I must have passed out because when I woke up again it was quiet. I wondered why the first thing I’d heard when I awoke the first time was a party. Why had it sounded so real and why out of all those voices hadn’t there been one that I recognized?
Then later I woke up to BWAHAHAHA! And along with it came those voices from somewhere so close that it felt like if I could turn my head, there they’d be. All the revelers in costume, some in masquerade, having the most wonderful time and gesticulating with their drinks and cigarettes. And then when I passed out and woke up again, again they were gone. It was clear now I was hallucinating. Maybe it had to do with the combined anesthesia still in me from three operations along with all the pain medication dripping into my arm and the gobs of pills they give me whenever I wake up. So then, yes, such a vivid hallucination would make sense but that still doesn’t explain why it’s a party.
The next time it happens a nurse is here so I ask about it.
Excuse me. Is there a party going on somewhere?
Uh… no, I don’t think so.
There! That laughter! Can’t you hear it?
By now though the nurse was leaving and just glanced back. Then she was gone, probably thinking how lucky she was that I couldn’t get out of bed since there was no telling what someone in my mental state might do.
That’s when I decided there was nothing for it but to push it back in my mind. So what if there was a party going on in my head with the voices and laughter of people so real that it felt like I could touch them. I decided to focus on basic things like the breakfast that came each morning when the hands of the old style wall clock hit exactly six. But just because I quit paying attention to the party didn’t mean that it stopped. It would still start up out of nowhere but then I’d just say to myself, ah yes, so there they are having a party again. Hmmm, I wonder what kind of jelly they gave me this morning. Hmmm, Raspberry, very good, yes, very good, I have to admit.
But now all that’s changed. If there really is a window in the wall behind me then the possibilities… What if I’m on the ground floor and outside this window is an entrance to the hospital? And it might be a major entrance, the kind where employees pass each other during shift changes that happen for everyone coming and going at the same time. And many of these employees would know one another from having worked together over the years so that when they meet outside it’s like “old home week” for them.
Yes, a window would explain the party but it also explains why the nurse can’t hear it. She hardly ever comes to this end of the bed and when she does her head is on the same level as Big Guy’s. The Slavic tune blocks out the party from her but since my head is lower and closer to the window, I can hear it. So maybe I’m not hallucinating as much as I thought. Or maybe not at all for that matter. And if that’s true, then maybe I’m getting better.
It occurs to me that if I’m actually getting better then I might be able to leave here at some point. But only if there is a window in the wall behind me. And I’m almost sure now that there is. And if all that’s true then I have a hope for the future that until now I hadn’t thought possible.
Harvey Huddleston’s short fiction has been published in RavensPerch, Otoliths, Literary Yard, CC&D Magazine, The Eunoia Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Mystery Tribune and The Scarlet Leaf Review.