“Come here,” the old man ordered.
Jessica gazed about the deserted dirt track, and surrounding sugarcane fields, and then back to the old man. His rheumy eyes moved from side-to-side as he listened to the ground. Apprehensive yet intrigued, Jessica slowly crouched and copied the old man's position. She faced him, one ear to the ground, flat palms and knees pressed against the sun-broken earth like some prayer ritual or begging position.
“What can you hear?” she whispered.
“ Shh ,” retorted the old man. “Listen . . .”
Jessica did as was bade, her eyes trained on the butterfly tattoo on the back of her hand. “I can't hear anything,” she said, impatiently.
The old man replied in a voice barely above a sigh. “First you will hear scratching,” he breathed.
“Yes! I can't hear it,” Jessica realised.
“That is the noise of insects,” the old man grumbled. “Do not listen to their lies. Go deeper.”
Jessica felt like laughing. It seemed so ridiculous, keeling on this dirt road, listening to the ground beside a little man who wore nothing but a loincloth. She thought of the distance between their different worlds and lives, aptly comparable in her designer clothes and sunglasses. But the old man's stern look strangled her impulses and she concentrated once more.
The insect scratching came back instantly: the crisp rustles of life living in an airless landscape. Jessica willed her hearing to go downward, deeper to what lay beyond, to what the old man heard.
It seemed as though an hour had passed and still nothing. Jessica then thought perhaps the old man was mad, and best left to lunatic pursuits alone. At least she would an interesting story to tell when she flew home and flirted her experiences at the wine party her return surely demanded.
Then a thump made her flinch. It sounded again, and then again. It wasn't fast, but steady and rhythmic nonetheless: the distant pounding of something hugely deep and mammoth.
“What is it?” she asked, excitedly.
“Wait,” said the old man. “There is more . . .”
Below the steady thumps, or possibly surrounding, came the heavy pings and scrapes of metal grinding on metal. Screeching. Turning. The living hum of gigantic cogs vibrated upwards, shaking the sun-killed dirt beneath Jessica's fingers.
“A machine?” she wondered. “Buried underground?”
The old man rasped a chuckle. “Of sorts.”
“My God!” Jessica marvelled. “It must be huge. Who could work it all the way down there?”
The old man seemed pleased with the question. “You will see.”
Jessica didn't understand, but felt content with this answer. She had a feeling, a sensation in her core, that she stood, or knelt, witness to the grandest epiphany of her life.
“How long have you been listening?” she asked, the tone of her voice comfortable and familiar.
“It does not matter,” the old man replied. “Soon it ends.”
“I don't understand.”
“Patience.” The old man's hard, sun-darkened face softened with a toothless smile, and he closed his eyes.
Jessica realised after a while – it could have been five minutes, it might have been five years – her heartbeat was attuned to the steady thumping in the ground. The constant grinding comforted her. She fancied her kneeling posture was reminiscent of the foetal position, and the idea of being back in the womb seemed both pleasing and correct. The quiet life of nature, gently living around her, was somehow intertwined with the machine in the ground. The knowledge that one would not be without the other, tapped gently at the back of Jessica's mind, and she yawned satisfactorily.
At some point she fell asleep.
At some point complete silence woke her.
The machine had stopped, as had Jessica's breathing. She exhaled heavily, and wondered if the world had died. Would she open her eyes to find there was nothing left?
For a long moment she debated this. Then bravely, she opened her eyes, saw the old man, and sighed with relief. She made to ask him why the machine had stopped, but wordlessly cried wet tears onto the dry dirt instead.
The old man had died.
Solemnly, his lifeless face sagged, the content expression sliding from features like melting wax.
Then, to Jessica's utter joy, the ground began to shake beneath her hands again, as did the sound of grinding wheels. The steady thump of the machine banged against her ear once more, like the beat of the world's heart.
Her tears moved from sadness to happiness.
I cannot leave , she realised.
She pressed harder against the dirt, burying her ear, and willed shoots of newborn plants to pierce the cartilage, to her make her a flower, a displayed crown, an effigy for life's homage. The pounding, dependable and dependent, wrapped Jessica in a blanket of absolute security. While the wheels continued to grind, there would always be total certainty.
* * *
“Come here,” the old lady ordered.
Miller cast a nervous eye around the deserted dirt track and shrugged. He got to his knees slowly, copying the old lady's position, and noticed the small butterfly tattoo on the back of her hand. He wondered what she heard as he knelt, and pressed his ear to the ground. Smiling, he felt as though he was about to pray.
“What is it?” Miller asked.
“ Shh !” retorted the old lady. “Listen!”