Walking Down the Grain


  Walking Down the Grain



Lying in his bed, in his pajama bottoms, and flat on his stomach, Nyambe is jolted awake by a loud banging: boom, boom, boom. He opens his eyes slowly. It takes a moment for his dull vision to adjust to the dim light. He turns over, rubs his face several times, and looks up at the ceiling.  His eyesight is still blurry. "C'mon," he said, "It's too early for this shit." Again, the banging. So, he sits up. Resign, but also upset at a good dream cut short.


Now wide-awake, Nyambe stands then unwraps his turban, letting his waist-length dreadlocks fall. He glances out the window and sees fog so thick it blankets everything in front of his house. Gray is the primary color. Nothing with color is visible. Not the sunrise. Nor the front yard. Even the grain silos, nearly fifty yards away, remained camouflage. These silos don't belong to him. He isn't a farmer. Nyambe interacts with them. Because, the lands around him are farmed by actual ones. And he knows the crew chief and farmhands who manage them.


Because of the silos' proximity, Nyambe keeps an eye on them. Country life breeds a different kind of criminal. They'll steal grain and other kinds of property — small cattle, tools, and tractor batteries. Furthermore, living so far out, he knows who drives up and down this gravel road and in what. Such vigilance makes theft difficult. Even so, somewhere over there, within this low-lying cloud, there is likely a farmhand going hard and doing God knows what. 


Boom, boom, boom.


Still drowsy, Nyambe goes lazily to the kitchen. There, he makes a hot cup of hibiscus tea with honey. It's hot. So he blows and takes slow, multiple slurps. He then heads for his book-ladened junk room. He sits at his cluttered writing desk. The sleeping laptop is awakened. He opens a new Word document and iTunes. He scrolls through his extensive playlist for a song which coincides with his morning mood.


"This'd do it," said Nyambe. "Him or Betty Davis?"


Nyambe feels funky, really funky, desperately in need of funky. Isaac Hayes won and one song is set for repeat. And with a simple click out came the extended version of "Walk On By." Nyambe leans back in the chair, closes his eyes, and listens, letting the instrumentals teleport his mind into a creative void. And as the dark space blankets him, it silences all external noises, and puts him between the music beats. Being there inspires him.


Succinct sentences stream and over this brief interval he types onto the screens what he dreams up. And once he pauses his imagination, ending with the last punctuation mark, Hayes's voice returns. Nyambe sighs, then rereads his work. Satisfied, even though it requires some editing, he lifts his cup and drinks. He soon stands and stretches out. And now in a better mood, he parts the window blinds and again gazes outside. This time the fog has lifted enough for him to look at the middle to lower half of the grain bins. 


With better vision, he immediately noticed two familiar trucks. Nyambe also caught sight of two shadowy bodies running around and a third one operating a backhoe loader. The heavy equipment, its arm and bucket, is being used to slam against the silo's outer wall. In the distance, sirens. A sound seldom heard since he doesn’t live near urbanization, but in the boondocks, almost 30 miles from the closest rural town. EMS vehicles arrive — made up of mostly local volunteers — and a number of police units. They come one after another, from Sunflower and Leflore County, and park in front of his house. It suggests nothing good.


"Something's not right," Nyambe says to himself.


Nyambe soon hears the crying of folded metal. The backhoe has breached the grain silo. Soy beans drains out fast and spreads across the ground. Then the backhoe maneuvers to a different area of the grain bin and begins pounding. Boom. Boom. Boom. More vehicles arrive; however, these lack official markings but flash red and blue lights. This affair quickly sparks his anthropological nature. 


He stays in his plaid pajama pants, but put on yesterday's T-shirt, let his dreadlocks dangle, then slips into his flip-flops, and rushes out. He strides across his four-acre front yard. Even from afar, it resembles organized chaos. He halts and looks up, because somewhere in the foggy sky a chopping sound echoes. Its direction, uncertain. As it nears, he looks southward, and narrows his vision. There above the treeline a fuzzy dot fast approaches. It soon whirs overhead, dissipating the mist. The medivac helicopter hovered some before choosing an open section of the lawn for a landing spot, forcing him to quicken his pace to avoid all the dust up.


"That's definitely not a good sign," said Nyambe.


He instantly surveyed the scene, getting as close as allowed. Two men, black and white, donned respiratory masks on their faces and fastened snowshoes to their feet. They trudged up the soybean hill and entered the breach, carrying with them planks, plastic bread trays, and a defibrillator. A dozen or so men worked frantically, using their arms and hands, or anything hard and flat, to shovel aside as much of the grain mound as possible.


Just then, a blue commercial size vacuum truck pulls up. The blue vacuum truck backs up and parks as close as possible to the misshapen cavity. A two-man team jump out and with help from others they quickly uncoil and snake a long black tube, placing it inside the grain bin. Once situated, a motor starts. The suction and displacement of soybeans begin. They are sent into freestanding piles several feet from the truck.


Behind it is what resembles Ecto-1, but absent the flashing lights, red-colored fins, and roof accouterments. The Ghostbuster ride parks in his yard beside the mailbox, but pointing its backend toward the breach. On its door read: "LeFlore County, Coroner." A squarely-built black woman gets out, sporting a chemical Afro, dark blue scrubs, and matching New Balance sneakers. She simply does her job, opening the backdoor, and removing a mortuary stretcher with a white folded body bag attached. She wheels it across the dirt road and leaves it there, then walks around, randomly talking to various other officials, before finding a comfortable place to stand and wait.


"Excuse me," Nyambe asks, getting the attention of two idle firefighters. "Is somebody in there?"


"A farmhand got buried," says one firefighter. "From what we know, he was walking down the grain removing clumps off the wall when it suddenly shifted."


"Oh my God," says Nyambe. "Is he alive?" 


"I seriously doubt it," says the other firefighter.


"Really?" Nyambe says.


"Really." The first firefighter says: "Things like this don't end well. I've been at this for ten years now and I haven't seen a miracle yet."


"Ain't that truth. Man, I was hoping to get through this farm season without a fatality," said the second firefighter. "One more week, man, one more week."


Boom, boom, boom.


"This happens a lot?" Nyambe asks.


"Too, too often," says the first firefighter. "I say at least 6 every year."


"Damn!" says Nyambe. "That many?"


"Oh yeah. This is the dark side of farming," said the other firefighter. "Only those familiar with this practice know the risks."


Boom, boom, boom.


Nyambe listens to both firefighters tell anecdotes of others who died while walking down the grain. Entrapment usually happens when a bridge forms underneath then collapses because of the person's body weight. Gravity instantly follows; moving grain mimics quicksand: swift, heavy, fluid, engulfing, and unforgiving. It takes seconds for an entire body to sink, making escape futile. Imagine drowning; but it's unlike swimming, even for a non-swimmer. The person becomes motionless. Moreover, he lacks the ability to keep his head above the surface. Air dwindles fast and remains far out of reach. So unless an extrication happens instantly, death is a foregone conclusion.


"I never realized; the dangers involved," said Nyambe. "I lived in the Big Easy for most of my life." 


Boom, boom, boom.


Bright sunlight displaces the remaining fog. Car after car soon arrives lining up and going all the way to the highway. Apparently, news of the tragedy travels fast, and attract those with lots of free time. Most of them have some relation to the first responders, either through family or friendship. And yet, they all react unanimously, by standing around, speculating, making inquiries, and likely waiting for a miracle.


"I'm in," says the backhoe driver, after punching another hole into the grain silo.


"Make another one," someone says, "but on the other side."


Boom, boom, boom.


Soon the silo becomes a sieve, emptying out more soybeans. Hours later a neon safety harness lands outside, atop of the soybean pile beneath the first breached hole. A cut lifeline follows. Another firefighter, a surprisingly large and soft fellow, saunters over and grabs them both. He halts suddenly, looking at the orange climbing rope funny. Then, he shows it to the fire chief and sheriff. They all look at it and hold lengthy discussions when a male voice from inside the grain silo shouts: "We got him!"


Medical aid follows, but resuscitation fails. The coroner hurries over and several officials help her climb up and down the soybean hill, into and out of the breach carefully. She pronounces him dead: asphyxiation. Shortly thereafter, the white body bag emerges; four firefighters placed it on the stretcher. Before the body is loaded into the Ghostbuster station wagon, a two-tone Crown Victoria speeds down the gravel road, threatening all in its path, until traffic forces her to stop.


A short brunette, pregnant, still in her fast food outfit, walks up and demands immediate answers, unconcern about herself, but seeking the whereabouts of Samuel — her boyfriend. An official points and escorts her there. Panic and tears cover her face, afraid of the obvious no doubt, but she insists on looking at him. The coroner unzips the bag and reveals his face. Her body goes limp and meets the earth, defying the official's catch. Paramedics rush to her aid as people huddles around them.


Right then, Nyambe calls it quits. He heads back home, his study complete. Back inside his junk room, he sits down and outlines what happened into his notebook, including his emotions, phrases heard, personalities met, and their overall dress style. After filling a few pages, he listens to randomly selected songs from his playlist: Be-Bop, Hip-Hop, Blues, Disco, Country, and Rock. Music, which suits his melancholic mood. Every now and then, he rises and moves around some. Every time, it ends with a look out the window.


The coroner leaves first, the local authorities slowly follow. The helicopter lifts off, flying back to the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Other people linger. A common thing after a tragic incident. But with the reality of death gone, and the absence of a miracle, their curiosity wanes. Soon his front yard and driveway becomes a roundabout for departing cars. They leave the scene, ready to gossip, returning to wherever they came from.


Now sipping on another cup of hot hibiscus tea, Nyambe again looks out his window. He sees two vehicles: the two-tone Crown Victoria and a black police cruiser. Both the officer and woman stand in front of the gaping hole, looking, his arm around her shoulders. Suddenly, he helps her scramble up the soybean hill, enabling her to look inside the silo. She doesn't move — likely imagining what he experienced — but soon comes down the grain as the officer guides her unsteady decline. She finally gets into her car and slowly drives off. The officer follows. 


An hour later, Nyambe's property and home surroundings returns to its tranquil state. Not expecting any more visitors, he decides to make another trip to the damaged grain bin and take a closer look. Now up-close and for the first time it registers, its enormity and cold form. From this viewpoint he easily comprehends the fear and cruelty of suffocation, empathizing with the victim at once. He then shuts his eyes and imagine: Samuel likely heard the boom, boom, boom, but for different reasons. The cavalry had arrived.


Wayne McCray


Wayne McCray is a Susurrus 2022 Pushcart Prize Nominee. His short stories have appeared elsewhere in Afro Literary Magazine, Bandit Fiction, The Bookends Review, Chitro Magazine, The Dillydoun Review, Drunk Monkeys, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Hooghly Review, Ilinix Magazine, Isele Magazine, Malarkey Books, The Ocotillo Review, Ogma Magazine, Pigeon Review, Roi Faineant, The Rush Magazine, Sangam Literary Magazine, Swim Press, and Wingless Dreamer. He works diligently from his book-laden junk room. 


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