The Land of the Soil
By Katya Luca.
It was a tiny dusty village. The ground was completely covered in bright yellow sand. There were tiny huts strewn along the one and only road, and a few barefoot children ran around in front of us, shouting and laughing and pointing. We walked slowly because we had a lot of heavy loads. I was carrying my cat Martha in a net bag on top of all my luggage. The day was hot, the sun rays were murderous. I was sweating so much that water ran down my body in waterfalls. We were a small group, and the only person I knew closely was my aunt Vendula, the rest were seasoned travelers who got annoyed at me at every possible moment for bringing an animal that added extra weight. They even made cruel jokes about eating her when the food supplies were getting low.
There was a small cafeteria in this village and we were thirsty and hungry, so we went inside. It looked like a typical school cafeteria – everything was made from cheap plastic and the food ladies were humongous and angry, and they were wearing shower caps on their heads. There was no food on display, instead fat buzzing flies replaced the chicken and the beef behind the plexiglas. A few curious sunburned-to-oblivion men sat in the corner wearing dirty orange wife-beaters and shorts that were borderline boxers. They were drinking something bright orange and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. As we walked in, the faces of the orange-clad men and the shower-cap ladies all turned to us. The constantly annoyed rude men of our company moved to the second room of the cafeteria which had a ceiling fan, but me and Vendula stayed in the first room because it didn’t have sleeping dogs. I let Martha out of her net bag and she roamed around the room ignoring the awkward glances and the rolling eyes everyone was giving her.
I walked up to the fattest and the roundest and the angriest lady in the shower cap who was staring me down and frowning. Her apron looked like it had never been washed. I smiled meekly and asked for some water, some orange sodas and chicken for the cat. Then I added that we wanted to try the local specialities, whatever they could make us, we would be thankful for anything.
Then I sat with my aunt. Her face looked like death when she removed the enormous brim hat. I thought I was sweating waterfalls but she was sweating oceans. Her long green khaki dress was covered in unsightly wet stains. I could tell she was not only struggling but also in a foul mood. The cafeteria lady brought us two glasses of orange liquid and one glass bowl of the same stuff, presumably for the cat. I looked at her in disbelief and asked if we could please have water for the cat. The lady shook her head and barked “No water here. Only soda”.
To my surprise Martha immediately jumped on the table and started drinking the orange stuff. Next I tried it and almost spat it out.
“What the hell is this?”
“Chicken flavored soda,” replied the lady, not even smiling at the ridiculous sentence.
I wanted to puke. But then the lady brought a piece of grey-looking chicken and dumped it into Martha’s bowl. The cat had never looked happier and ate it in a second.
Meanwhile the rest of the company were having a good laugh in the other room and I saw the ladies bringing them piles of tasty food and bottles of freshly opened cold beers. I could feel the cold sweat on the bottles as if I was holding them myself. Apparently we somehow offended the inhabitants with our big hat and our hungry cat, so we were never going to get the same treatment.
Afterwards we all separated. Vendula found a small house with the others, took Martha with her and they all went to rest. I stayed in the cafeteria and five pudgy middle-aged men joined me at the table. They asked me if I wanted an adventure, so naturally I agreed. We chatted a bit about my past, how I was denied entry into the US, how my life resembled shattered glass. Soon it was time to leave. We were to travel by foot through the jungle for several days. I had no map, no responsibilities, no commitments. We left at dawn and walked all day without breaks for food or toilet. If someone had to stop, they simply had to catch up with us as we kept moving. I have to say it would have been hard to lose track of our company in the thick sweltering forest because there was only one path and our company was loud and slow, sometimes literally carving out a path with long saber-like knives. The journey went on and on for days or weeks, to tell you the truth I lost count as the scenery was the same and we met few obstacles.
One night we arrived in a small village populated only by women and children. It was around 5pm as we unpacked, stretched our shoulders from the heavy bags and finally sat down with loud sighs. In the evening the leader asked us to gather round. For the first time I noticed that everyone in our company suddenly had guns. I tried to stay nonchalant but inside I was terrified. After all, who were these men that I travelled with? Where were they hiding those guns before?
“We are going over tonight. Stay low to the ground, keep to the bushes and follow the guys.”
“The border, of course.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You wanted to get into the US. Here is your chance with us.”
“And what are you doing?”
“That I would rather not disclose.”
The night got darker and cooler but the anxiety was rising. Finally the boss quietly signaled that it was time to go. I was so nervous that I accidentally forgot my bag by the fire, with all my money, documents, clothes. I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing and some small change in my pockets. We ran noiselessly through the nearby forest, then we saw a moonlit clearing in front of us. I stayed behind all the men with the guns and kept thinking of turning back. Just as I made up my mind to turn around, gunshots started pouring in from all sides. Somebody shouted something incomprehensible and I bolted for the bushes in front of us across the clearing, following a young guy with a rifle and a huge green bag. As we reached the bushes, he suddenly fell. In the dark shadows I recognized that he got shot, I could see the dark liquid forming underneath his body and spreading around on the earth beneath. I panicked, threw myself on the ground near him and lay still. I thought perhaps if I stayed that way, I would survive. People ran all around me, and I couldn’t understand if they were my companions or the American soldiers. Somehow the gun fighting stopped, I felt someone trip over me and then everything was still.
When the sun came up, I made up my mind to give myself up to the soldiers. I got up with great pain, having lain on the ground still for many hours. My clothes were covered in dirt and blood. The sun was already very bright and fresh. I immediately put my arms up above my head and walked through the bushes further into another clearing. A long red-yellow dusty road that terminated in a tiny wooden border post led me out of the bushes. There were two soldiers that stood there, one watching the road, the other attending to something on the table. The soldier who was watching me was a man in his thirties, and as soon as he spotted me, he pointed his gun right to my chest. I kept walking with my arms raised and he walked towards me slowly. Then he lowered his gun, and without saying anything brought my arms down and put handcuffs on me. He was gentle but with a severe face expression, letting me firmly know that I was in trouble.
“Were you with those men last night?”
“Sort of. I was in their company but I only found out what we were going to do a few hours before we did it.”
“Do you know what they were doing?”
“I am guessing they were smuggling some stuff across the border. They had guns and big green bags. The rest is unclear.”
“Let’s see your passport.”
“I left all my stuff back in the village. I know it sounds stupid, but I simply forgot everything there.”
The soldier looked me over a few times. He focused on the blood on the front of my my shirt.
“Did you shoot somebody? Or did you get hurt?”
“No, I didn’t even have a gun. I lay on the ground next to a guy who got shot. His blood was seeping through the earth and I guess it got to my clothes.”
“We will have to examine you head to toe. Marissa!”
When she heard her name, the other soldier who was fussing over something on the table came over to us. She led me to a small tent, where she stripped me naked and checked every nook of my clothing. This didn’t take very long since I was wearing a shirt and a pair of shorts. Soon she gave me some clean clothes, helped me put them on, since I was still handcuffed, and we walked out again.
“All clear. She seems to be an unfortunate case really. Why did you do this? Did you know this was the border?”
“Yes. I wanted to come to the US.”
“Getting a visa would have been easier.”
“I was denied once already. My country of origin is ****.”
“Oh I see. So you don’t have any documents, or any possessions with you?”
“I have no idea what to do. I will call my supervisor. Stay here with Marissa.”
I moved closer to her table. My head was full of terror. They were going to ship me back to the home country where I would rot till the end of my days. I shivered although it was about 40 degrees outside.
But then I looked closer at what Marissa was doing. She had tiny greenhouses on the table, the size of small flower pots. They were oval shaped with a wooden bottom and a dome-like glass top. Inside I saw tiny plants that looks like vines with tiny pea pods on them.
“What are those?” I asked.
“This is new technology. New age, future age. Just watch this!”
She opened one dome greenhouse, put one drop of some clear liquid into the soil, closed the dome and we leaned in closer. Suddenly the vines came alive, they started growing immediately, and the little pods of peas fattened up right in front of our eyes. It was the most magical and insane thing I had ever witnessed. The vines quickly stopped growing but the peas continued until they reached the size of real ripe pods, nearly crushing the small greenhouse they were trapped in.
“You’re crying,” remarked Marissa, critically staring at me with a mock frown.
“I have never seen anything like it. What is this liquid? Some sort of space chemical?”
“Actually, no! This is the liquified form of the soil which can only be found on the other side of that clearing, where you and your company came from. I believe this might be the answer to world food shortage. Those people over there don’t know and don’t realize what they have. But we might have discovered their secret. They run across the border smuggling but we know the real treasure their earth is hiding. We can’t let this secret out though because then this area will immediately become unstable. I am not quite sure what to do with this information to be honest.”
“Did you discover this all on your own?”
“Yes. I am a biologist by profession but then my family died in a freak accident and I had no money. The army promised to pay for my PhD when I get done with my service, so I joined. I can’t believe my luck that they sent me here! This is my PhD, right here, writing itself. I don’t even have to do anything extraordinary, the extraordinary has already found me.”
“I am amazed. But how can the people here not know this?”
“Because they have never lived anywhere else. Very few plants are native to this land, so they just assume all plants grow this fast and abundant. They don’t concern themselves with food. They waste it and they take it for granted.”
“So how did you discover this amazing thing?”
“We had a short campaign to try to scare the natives into not crossing the border illegally any more. We moved through the bushes and I was wounded. Not by a bullet or a man, but by a sharp plant. I stopped for a second to study it, because I accidentally ripped off its branch, and as I looked at the injured plant, it grew a new branch right in front of my eyes. I thought I was hallucinating. So on our way back I grabbed a few plants with me. All my first experiments failed, I thought it was the plants that were magic, not the soil. Eventually one of my buddies pointed out that the only plants that continued to grow were the ones that had the most of the original soil. So the next time we were ‘in the zone’ I collected a bunch of soil with the plant specimens. Back here I planted a few of our own plants into the strange soil, and this here is the result.”
“This is fascinating. What’s next for you?”
Before Marissa could answer, the first soldier was coming back serious and upset.
“The boss says you’re an illegal in both countries, ours and this one here that you crossed over from. We will have to send you as a criminal to your country of origin.”
I panicked and started crying, pinching my skin, grabbing my hair, scratching my face. I saw the tanks, the grey skies, the cold winters, the mud, the depression, the cold wrinkled faces, the harsh voices, the monotony of the suffering, the small plastic shopping bags that had been washed as if they were clothes, the oil-leaking petrol-smelling privatized buses, the alcoholics dropping like flies, the corruption, the lies, the vulgarity, the imbeciles and dullards, the politics, the war. And I couldn’t imagine it for me, I couldn’t insert myself into that vision. It was as if it was happening to some other person. The soldiers tried to calm me down, to stop me from hurting myself, but my skin was already bleeding from the scratching, and I was ripping out my hair in tufts, screaming and stomping, until I eventually collapsed on the ground and fainted.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katya Luca is an artist, writer and video maker. She was born in Russia but spent most of her life between Prague, London and the USA. In 2014 she embarked on a vegan journey through southern Europe, parts of northern, eastern and southern Africa. Currently she lives and works in Prague.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 4th, 2017.