Yellow Cake

I woke up on the roof, stiff inside my clothes, because some roosters were screaming in the streets. Like they had anything worth reporting. The sun wasn’t up yet. But it was coming. I folded my blanket and locked it in my suitcase, then wrapped my suitcase in a black contractor bag and hid it by one of the chimneys fingering out from the roof. Then I sat on the ledge and waited for the sun to come up a bit. Most of the sky was purple but between the clouds and the mountains, a band of yellow was widening, getting bright. It was that brightness I was waiting for. My night vision doesn’t exist. I took the fire escape down to the street only after I could see the steps.

by Andrew Coelho

by Andrew Coelho

It’d taken me a few days of being stranded here to figure out the rhythms of this town. I spent the first little while just hanging around being obvious, watching the yellow dust settle among the orange and blue buildings, all brick and mortar smoothed over in strokes of clay. I didn’t talk to anyone and no one talked to me. Something bad was in bloom somewhere. It turned everything I saw into nonsense. But early one morning, after finding my safe spot on the roof of the town’s only—and, I might add, mostly vacant—hotel, I saw from my vantage some men gathered at a corner near a butcher’s shop. There was something expectant in the way they all stood there, shifting from foot to foot. It wasn’t long after dawn that a truck came and took the men away. This all happened before the day’s yellow dust came and made everything hazy again. It seemed to me the men were catching a ride to another town, or anyway, that’s what I wanted to believe, so the next morning I waited in silence with the men on the corner and just like before, a truck came and took us away. But instead of being delivered to a new town, we were dropped off at a potato field. The other men without a word set to plowing the mounds over by hand and tumbling the potatoes they found into empty grain sacks knotted through their belt loops. This was not what I’d expected. But I hadn’t expected to be stranded in some no-name town in a country whose name I couldn’t pronounce, either. Nature’s unsubtle suggestion, as always, was adapt. I joined the men in turning over the earth and stained myself red with the soil.

It was only in town that it clouded up real thick, making noon itchy and surreal.

I’d been doing this for the past four days now. I figured there’d eventually come some change. But I wasn’t in a rush for that anymore. It was nice having something to do at last, even if I hadn’t been paid so far. And if nothing else, that yellow dust was not so bad out there among the fields. It was only in town that it clouded up real thick, making noon itchy and surreal. I lowered myself down the fire escape from my roost on the roof and walked to the corner near the butcher’s shop, and even though it was still mostly dark, already a few men were hanging out there, waiting. They were younger than me and very lean in their denims and flannels, and it was clear just looking at them that their lives weren’t going to get much better than this. But things likely wouldn’t get much worse for them, either. They nodded their hellos when they saw me coming, but mostly they spoke quietly to themselves. Which was fine by me. I didn’t know their language anyway. A few more men showed up, then a very old man who often worked alongside us—I remember, around his neck hung a string of bones worn so smooth by finger-touch and time that you couldn’t tell which bones were which anymore—then another man came with a big kettle of coffee and offered everyone a little. The coffee man didn’t work with us in the field. He’d just show up each morning ten minutes before the truck, give us our pours, then disappear again into town. Most of the men had aluminum cups that they kept tied to their belts, or paper cups folded carefully in a breast pocket so as to avoid breaking them at the seams. But I had a collapsible metal camping cup, which was pretty much the only useful thing I’d found in my suitcase so far. When telescoped open, it could hold about half a cup. When compressed, it was smaller than a tin of shoe polish. But it leaked. The men I worked with laughed whenever I took out my leaky space-age cup. They thought it was a real good joke. And it was. It was hilarious. We laughed about it together. Then we all had a little coffee.

In a while, the truck came and we climbed up onto the bed. The old man sat on the edge where the tailgate was missing, his legs dangling toward the scratched up road below. He looked so small sitting that way. Like someone ought to come bear him off and take care of him, afford him a little rest just this once in his life. I tried to give him my seat over the wheel well, but he just waved me away. Then the truck started with a lurch and the old man fell off the back. His coffee spilled all over and so did the coins in his pockets, spraying in the dust. The truck stopped again with a jerk and the driver shouted and we all jumped down to help the old man find his feet and his coins and his overturned cup. Then we got him loaded back on in a much safer seat. He didn’t seem so much hurt as rattled by the fall. But hitting the ground like that couldn’t have felt good. Once the truck was moving again, I shared with him a little of my coffee. But I also kept some for myself.

The country we were in was flat and dense with cultivated greens, fields upon fields of corn and barley and potatoes and other things I still cannot name. All the roads were dust tracks made by and for the trucks that gathered the men who gathered the food. But I couldn’t understand who all this food was meant to feed. There were no other villages as far as I could see out here. In every direction there were faraway mountains and beyond those mountains, there must be cities. There had to be. But how far were they? What did the people there do? I wasn’t even sure from which direction I’d first come just a few days ago, which compass point directed me to this place. I was growing dangerously close to forgetting why I was here.

And aside from the few chickens in town, there were no birds out here either. That’s something else I’d noticed. Wherever there’re people, in my experience, there are birds. But there weren’t any birds out here circling above all this green. I couldn’t make sense of what that was supposed to mean.

The truck dropped us off at a field and it was different from yesterday’s field and the field before that, but that didn’t really matter. Different fields yield the same fruit. We took up our sacks and the truck left and we knelt in the soft dirt and pushed our hands through the mounds. We ripped out the tangled green vines and shook off the dirt and piled them in the rows to wither in the sun. We rubbed the potatoes clean with our thumbs. So far I’d seen fields where the dirt was red like baked earthen bricks and I’d seen fields where the dirt was volcano black. This field was like a cake of powdered gold. The potatoes were nearly white. Beneath the surface, there were always red worms, terrified to be touched.

A lot of the men liked to talk while they sifted their hands through the earth. But their conversations weren’t meant for me. So while we worked, I retold myself the storyline from a movie I once saw. It was about a man in a country engaged in a war he did not agree with. He loved the country, but he was convinced its war was evil. His job in this country was to broadcast propaganda over state radio, so it was his duty to promote a cause that he morally—though secretly—opposed. But one day an enemy spy made contact with the man. The spy wanted him to send coded messages in his broadcasts, concealed as coughs or throat-clearings, ums and ahems. The words would remain unchanged. These codes would help the enemy armies defeat the man’s country, which he loved but thought was wrong. Everything hinged on this man believing it’d be better for his country to be beaten and have its thoughts corrected than to be victorious in a wrong-headed war. He agreed to help the spy, knowing full-well that no one would vouch for or defend him if he ever was found out. And never once did he learn the contents of the secret messages he broadcast in code. All he knew were the hateful speeches he was paid to read over the air, things he pronounced with conviction and that he did not believe. And maybe, ultimately, that was all he was broadcasting. Maybe there was no code, the spy a justifying fiction. Maybe everything he said was just hate. I remember thinking, that was a pretty good movie.

And the thing is, I could have recited that story aloud in the field or silently in my head and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. None of these men could understand a word I said. Just as I could decipher nothing they had to say. The insurmountable chasm dividing our languages made all meaning—whether spoken or secret—irrelevant. Which is to say, where the subject or object at hand was me, there was no meaning at all.

Where the subject or object at hand was me, there was no meaning at all.

In a while, the truck came back and the driver rolled a couple barrels off the bed and then drove off again. His timing could not have been better, as our sacks had grown almost too heavy to move. We dragged them down the rows and emptied the potatoes into the barrels and went back to harvest more. This was our routine. Simple, if not easy. An hour more passed and the truck returned and usually this would’ve been when the driver delivered our rations—oftentimes a big pot of communal stew—but today when the truck stopped, the driver didn’t get out of the cab. Instead, a new man I did not recognize stepped out the passenger side. He was tall and cleanly dressed and had a pistol in a holster strapped to his waist. He wore a hat and the hat made a shadow so I could not clearly see his face. But I could tell where he was looking. The new man stood at the edge of the field and considered us men coming in for our lunch, then he turned to say something to the driver. When the driver responded, the man with the pistol made an ugly shape of his lips. Then he looked right at me.

His eyes were just eyes, but they might as well have been his gun. He stared at me as I followed the other men down the rows. He watched us close in around the truck. Then he leveled a finger at my chest.

Knowing anything has never been my strong suit. My comfort lies in ignorance. But I was having a hard time keeping comfortable just now. There was way too much certainty in this scenario. At first the man spoke at me in a low, even voice. But his calm did not conceal his threat. And soon enough anyway that calm was a vapor, a dream all but lost in the moment of waking. His calm had never been. The man with the gun had a way of bobbing his head like a preening bird with the rhythm of his words, and it was obvious he was asking me something but there was no way I could know what. I could only guess. And what good was my guess if I could not share it with him? The air was starting to fill with the yellow dust from town. It made thinking impossible. Meanwhile, the other men all had their heads hung down like maybe they could pretend they weren’t here, that none of this was happening. The old man was almost stooping, he held his head so low. His bone necklace trembled from his neck.

I had absolutely no doubt that this man would kill me. Force me to my knees in the dirt alongside the road and feed the bullets from his gun one at a time through the back of my skull. He could do this, and no one would care, and beyond these few men wishing they were anywhere but here, no one would even know. I didn’t belong here. It was a secret to no one: I did not belong here. I wondered if maybe he thought I had pushed the old man off the back of the truck earlier, if that’s what this was all about, that the driver had said that I’d tried to rob the old man or kill him. Then I wondered—and this idea made me all at once very cold—I wondered if they’d found my suitcase, hidden as garbage on the roof of the hotel.

The sky had turned blue but the far-off mountains were black. There was earth on my hands and earth caked to my knees, and that earth smelled like rain. The man was screaming now. One hand was pointing at me and one hand was on his gun. His movements were wild. Through the yellow dust, I could see spit flecking the corners of his mouth. I was calm. I raised my hands above my head. I sank my knees again into the golden soil of this foreign land. I blinked my eyes in the yellow light of the sun and the screaming man’s bobbing silhouette, and wondered, where are all the birds? I felt like there should be an answer. But it wouldn’t be mine today. I turned my face toward the warmth of the light and I told them about a man in a country that was at war.

Douglas W. Milliken is the author of four books, including the novel To Sleep as Animals and the collection, Cream River. His stories have earned prizes from Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, and the Stoneslide Corrective, and have been published in Slice, the Collagist, and the Believer, among others.