The morning of my first breaking I got up before the sun.
I couldn’t sleep the night before, nothing more than a toss-and-turn in-and-out-type sleep, the kind you usually suffered through when you were sick or excited.
So as soon as I saw the first brush of grey light climb up out from the horizon line, I gathered my things and left our lean-to, careful not to disturb my brothers Nelson and Memo. I don’t know if they would’ve woken even if I’d stepped on them or crowed in the dawn; they’d been breaking since the season started months ago, having made the trip to the coast well before I was able to. Mama insisted that I finish my grade 10 before I left for the coast, that way if it didn’t work out or if I got hurt I could always come back and work in one of the Company warehouses, like my sister.
I didn’t want that life. I hadn’t seen my sister since I was in grade 5, which was about when she left for the warehouse.
My brothers found a team of breakers willing to take me on, albeit at a reduced rate because I was so young, and sent word telling me to make for the coast. Mama and Papa packed my things, took me to the church to have the Father bless my shoes and my hands, and then loaded me up on the first bus out of town. Mama told me to ask Memo about his studies at the university in the capital and to remind him to send more money home. Nelson she didn’t ask about.
On that first morning I moved slow over the loose sand, barefoot with my boots dangling down over my shoulders, savoring the clean feel of the fine white sand, cool and dry before the heat of the high sun. The beach over the next dune was black, not like the white sand of the breaker town.
“The oil,” Memo had answered when I asked why the sand was different. “All the leftover oil from the ships. Stains the sand black, all the way down.” He showed me his fingers and toes and they were stained at the nails and the calloused pads of his palms and soles.
“Not me,” I told him. “I’ve got my boots, and the Father blessed my hands and feet anyways.”
Memo shrugged. “Maybe you’re right, little brother.”
“It’s the mark of a man,” Nelson said. He’d been listening to our conversation, grunting and nodding as he cleaned our breaker team’s thermal axes. It was our turn this week, which is why he had to clean everyone’s gear. “Means you worked hard to provide. The mark of a man. We’re proud of it.”
I believed him but later that night I saw Memo scrubbing at the stains, lifting double handfuls of sand up and working his fingers deep in the earth of our camp.
I reached the top of the last dune before the land fell to flat beach. There I sat, scooping out a bowl in the dune’s crest so I could sit comfortably, hugged by the sand, and watch the sunrise over the breaking beach. The last of the stars were still out, brilliant pinpricks of light that defied the inevitability of the sunrise. There was no moon, it had fled hours before for darker skies.
The first cries of gulls and seabirds broke news of the rising sun. The washed-out grey started to give way to warm orange and pink and blue, preceding the first edge of the sun’s shimmering red disc as it emerged from the distant lip of the world. Rising like the great red eye of God from the ocean.
All at once, light. I could nearly see all the way up and down the breaking beach, if not for the golden wall of sunbrightened mist kicked up by lazy waves crashing around the bodies of half-broken ships. The breaking beach was flat as a plate, never covered by more than a foot or two of water even at high tide, and nearly tripled in size when the tide ran out. The ocean was slow here, safe but for the occasional swell.
The ships. The sunrise was nice but I’d seen one before. I’d never seen anything like the ships, and I wanted to see them on my own, like the birds did, before I had to see them from the ground.
They were massive. Gulls and other shorebirds wheeled around the high tops of the beached ships, calling and calling out to the rising sun. Black hulls, red hulls, some blue, some white, orange, all in some stage of breaking. Most of them were commercial liners, listing a little to the right or left, safely settled in the sand despite their appearance. I did see one lean grey ship, neutered of its guns but obviously military.
My first thought was that the ships looked like a herd of behemoths, pausing for a drink by a lake, while attendant birds and small creatures scurried about their great bulks.
Crews of breakers piloting skiffs, earlier risers than me, were already making their way out to their ships, sliding down the dunes and splashing through the low tide to the flanks of their ships, looking like ants at the feet of titans.
“Chavo, there you are,” Nelson called out from behind me. “Come down, help us with the drone. She can’t see nothing since her eyes went out.”
I didn’t want to lose this feeling, the memory of the first sunrise over the breaker beach. I lingered before heading down the dune to help my brothers.
“Which one is our ship?” I asked, taking up a section of line that was tied to our team’s drone. The grey and yellow machine floated a foot above the ground, silent but for the hum of its engines that kept it afloat. Six fuel tanks, three to a side, made for the head of the drone, bolted in place by metal ribbing around a cluster of sensors that were its brain. The whole back of the drone was one flat bed, bare at the start of the day but by the end it would be full of fresh cut bulkhead and metal plating harvested from our ship.
“The Journey, just down the beach from here,” Nelson said. He started humming a work song, one of the popular ones I’d heard around the camps over the course of the last few days. “She was a cargo ship. Big, big old girl. Good luck for us to get on a team that breaks her down.” He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Ship like the Journey will last us half the season, right Memo?”
“That’s why the boys were willing to take you on,” Memo said to me. “Payout’s gonna be more than enough.”
I smiled, thinking that we were very lucky.
Memo lit a hand-rolled cigarette. “Let’s get to pulling,” he said, his voice thick with smoke.
I looped my section of line around my waist and walked with my brothers, pulling the drone along. It wasn’t too hard, since the thing floated, it just took some effort to get it started. Nelson led with a song, and I filled in the words where I knew them and hummed the tune where I didn’t.
My brothers and I, joined by ten other members of our team, sloshed through the waist deep water of the breaking beach, following with the flow of traffic through ad-hoc streets made from the spaces in between the massive hulls.
The ships climbed high over our heads, hundreds of feet high even in their quays that held them upright. They were so tall they blocked out the rising sun, plunging the waterline into darkness so deep we were forced to use flashlights.
Our team of breakers, the men my brothers called “The Boys”: Manny, Tip, Blondie, Blas, Chuey, Tomas, Aristoteles, Tony, Marvin, and Willie. I was the youngest by nearly ten years, but none of the other men had brothers who could vouch for them.
They spoke and sang and laughed, but I didn’t. I stopped humming and kept to myself, both hands on the line about my waist, a strange sense of shame keeping my spirits down. Walking in the valleys between the ships reminded me of the time a year before, when I went with my class to the Governor’s Library and walked between the looming stacks of books I couldn’t read.
“Wave coming!” A shout carried up the line from the ocean side of the beach. We all looked up from our songs and conversations, training our flashlights towards the approaching wave.
A dark swell in the water, slipping up the street towards us, a white crest boiling over its peak and tumbling down with a roar. Most of the men just bobbed over, but I could see some clambering up onto the backs of their drones or up the sides of ships, where handholds were available.
“Baby wave,” Nelson scoffed. “Small even for the summer.” He sang louder and waded doggedly on.
“Chavo hop on the drone,” Memo said, offering me a hand up.
“No, Nelson said it was a baby wave.” I shook my head.
“Fine,” Memo shrugged. “Take a deep breath first, we’ll pull you back up with the line.”
I stuck my tongue out at my brother, but saw the wave building as it came closer, so I took a deep breath just to be sure.
The roar echoed off the steel flanks of the ships, shattering my hearing into static. The air changed and I felt it in my ears as the wave moved closer. In its tumbling white mass I could see horses and bulls, lions and elephants and semi-trucks and tanks all stampeding towards me. I planted my feet to try and jump over like I’d seen some of the men do, but when the wave hit I mistimed it and then the world was black and spinning and full of cold, cold saltwater. The tumbling knocked the wind out of me and I felt the grit, the hard-packed ground grind the side of my face as the wave threw me down.
Then, a jerk at my waist and a shock of cool air and laughter all around me.
“Told you to be up on the drone, Chavo,” Memo said. He laughed, but he shook his head and looked almost exactly like Papa. “You lost your boots.”
I looked and saw that I had. They’d been draped over my neck and down my shoulders, laces tied together like I’d seen some of the men do: save the dry boots for when you’re up on the ship, go barefoot through the sand and the water. The wave had taken them when it sent me tumbling end over end.
“Don’t step on anything sharp,” Nelson patted me on the shoulder. “Unless you want to save money and buy one shoe instead of a pair next time.”
The men in our team laughed at me and we set to wading towards the Journey once more. The next wave that came, I climbed up on the drone and rode over it, watching the white head of the water roll by underneath.
“Welcome to the Journey.” A slight, stooped man greeted us up on the deck of the ship, shaking our hands one by one as we pulled ourselves over the railing. He wore a wrinkled linen suit and clutched a briefcase in his off hand.
A second man, rougher, tanned and chapped by sun and wind, stood with his arms crossed, appraising each of us as we climbed up onto the deck. He was shirtless, stripped to the waist save for a cloth band around his arm and a gallery of crude tattoos across his chest, neck, and shoulders
We’d climbed up the side of the Journey, emerging from the straight, flooded alleys of the breaker beach and into the high midday sunshine. Months before the Boys had built ramps from scaffolding wide enough to accommodate the drone; weight wasn’t a concern since the machine could float. It hummed onboard behind us, coaxed along by deft, surefooted handlers.
Memo and Nelson and the rest of the Boys knuckled salutes and greetings to the shirtless man, and then got to getting dressed. Boots and gloves on. Scarves and kerchiefs and, if you could afford it, closed-circulation breathers and filter masks were pulled on over mouths and noses and eyes. All the cutters pulled on black, bug-eye goggles, my brother Nelson included.
I lost my boots and had no gloves. Memo brought me a paper mask, so I pulled it on and adjusted the bit of metal over the bridge of my nose to better fit my face.
“Who are they?” I asked, standing by my brothers as they finished sealing their suits with duct tape. The Journey’s deck was metal, hot under the rising sun. I shifted from foot to foot, trying to save my soles from the heat.
“The Man,” Nelson grunted. “And the Boss.”
“Iglesias is the skinny one in the suit. He’s our new assessor, from the East Atlantic Breaker Company,” Memo clarified. “They’re the ones who own this whole beach.”
“What happened to the old assessor?” I asked.
“The Boss caught him selling dupes,” Nelson snapped his belt closed over his waist, pulling the adjusting straps tight with two quick jerks. He drew his disconnected axe and spun it in his hand. “Duplicate contracts.”
“The same contract to two different breaker teams.” Memo clarified. “We found out after what’s-his-name got killed in the fight.”
“Jorge?” Nelson offered.
“Sure, that sounds right.” Memo shrugged. “Anyways we caught the old assessor on his way out of town and hung him from the side of the Journey. That was a few months back, though, got you the free space on the team. Everything is all good now.” Memo shrugged again.
“Ok boys,” the Boss broke away from his aside with Iglesias, clapping his hands and calling out to get our attention. The boys shuffled through their pre-breaking prep, acknowledging the Boss with grunts and nods. Iglesias looked a little nervous and out of place, clutching his briefcase, suit rippling in the sea breeze that kicked up over the deck of the Journey. The Boss smiled, his grin toothless save for a cluster of desperate survivors huddled together in a corner. “Burnin’ daylight, Breakers,” he said in his thick drawl. “Time to get to work.”
I looked wide-eyed at Memo and Nelson. They didn’t seem like killers, they were my good older brothers who worked hard and sent money home. Memo even went to University for a little bit, even though he was lying about that to Mama and Papa now.
I decided that they said “We” because they meant the Boys did it. They didn’t actually do it themselves, I hoped.
We got to work.
Nelson was a cutter and carried a thermal axe, an acetylene torch that burned white-hot and could hew through the great plates of the Journey’s hull in minutes. Cutters rappelled over down over the side of the ship, hanging like spiders secured by a confusion of line and hose, moving with a grace that had been learned and set aside. They moved causally, never very deliberate unless the Boss was watching.
Tails followed the Cutters, carrying spools of hose that fed fuel and oxygen from the tanks on the drone to the Cutters’ axes. I was a Tail for Nelson, which meant I stood on the deck, spool of hose resting on the lip of the railing, and did what he told me to. I played out hose and reeled it in when he called for it, always checking for kinks or punctures, making sure that it didn’t tangle around his head or arms as he worked.
At the very far end of the line, behind the Cutters and their Tails, was the Boss. The Boss sat with Iglesias on a pair of folding chairs under an umbrella on the Journey’s deck next to the drone. They passed a bottle of homebrew back and forth while they looked over papers and signed forms. Whenever Tails loaded a new slab of hull onto the drone, the Boss would amble over with Iglesias in tow, inspect the sheet of metal, stamp it with his mark, and sign a form.
Memo said they talked business, but I thought the two men laughed too much for that. Memo minded the drone, keeping watch on the fuel levels, making sure this valve was open, that this valve was closed, and that all the dials and readouts stayed green. I didn’t understand any of it, but Memo said he’d teach me in time.
“More line,” Nelson shouted up to me and I obliged. He always wanted more line. He was cavalier where most cutters were casual, competitive where others moved with languid boredom in their work. Nelson didn’t cut, he cleaved, swinging his thermal axe in great arcs that sent a rain of sparks and molten slag tumbling down into the waters below. When he called for line, his voice carried on the wind, both swallowed by and overwhelming the sounds of breaking all around us.
On breaks, Nelson would take to showing me how to use an axe, how to strike the right flame and focus a beam, how to drive a clean cut and not burn yourself on the splash of slag and sparks. He taught me how to curse and told me to try it next time the Boys made fun of me for being too new, or for following my brothers around. The rest of the day passed with me cursing a blue streak as the other Tails laughed and laughed.
I finally got to cut towards the end of my first month aboard the Journey, I think at the urging of my brothers who were in good standing with the Boss and the rest of the Boys.
“Okay Chavo, here’s how it’s gonna go.” Nelson said. He spoke to me eye-to-eye like a man, which meant he had to squat down and steady himself by holding on to my shoulders. “Whenever you’re ready, hop over the railing. You’re not gonna fall because we have you tied up.” He tugged the loops of heavy line that ran through the eyeholes of my harness. “I did the knots, not Memo, so you know for sure that you’re not gonna fall okay? And Manny’s going to be your Tail; he weighs about five of you, so you’re really not going to fall unless he gets distracted by food and forgets to hold onto the line.” Nelson winked, and Manny waved. “Ready to go?”
I couldn’t speak because I was shaking so bad so I nodded instead.
“Good man.” Nelson clapped me on the shoulder. “Up over the railing, whenever you’re ready. I’ll be right down next to you.”
“Stop nodding Chavo, the Boys are watching.” Nelson muttered.
I nodded again and let Nelson turn me bodily around to face the railing. On weak, trembling legs I walked the short distance to the edge of the world, grabbed the rail in both hands, and planted my foot up on the first rung.
I paused, felt the wind push back against me, and nearly vomited.
The Journey was a big ship and even in its trough it climbed about two hundred feet up above the beach. From what I’d seen in the mornings during our climb up the scaffolding, more than half of that height would’ve been underwater when it was out on the Big. Out on the breaking beach, though, as much of the ship was exposed as was possible while still letting it rest upright.
That meant two hundred feet.
That meant, I thought as I climbed up and over the railing, I would have a very long way to fall, and a very long time to feel that terror before I hit the shallow water below.
“Good Chavo! Good!” Nelson’s voice boomed in my ear. He was right next to me, already five feet or so below me on the sheer metal flank of the Journey. He rested in his rappelling position like he was sitting on the air, looking up at me with a grin as big as the world plastered across his face. “Just sit down and walk, easy as that.”
Nelson was the best cutter of all of them so I trusted him. I sat down into my harness, let Manny and the ropes take up my weight, and walked, shuffling my bare feet down the hot metal flank of the Journey. It didn’t hurt so much now, as my soles had built up calluses from all the walking and the work I’d done barefoot.
In a few minutes’ time I reached Nelson.
“See? Easy as walking,” he said. “Now let’s cut.”
We spent the day cutting, Nelson coaching me on how to use an axe. Together we cut free my first slab of hull and while I was happy about that, I had a moment when the slab fell free that caught me by surprise.
The Journey screamed.
I flinched at the sound of the shearing metal, nearly dropping my lit torch. The sound to me was the same as the time my Papa caught and killed a sow that had stumbled into our camp. The sow had screamed like a person, a horrible noise that ended in a wet gurgle of blood. The Journey did the same, only it ended in a gurgle of slag and hiss of coolant spray from Nelson’s extinguisher. He slapped a magnetic fastener to the slab, jerked the line to let the Tails above us know it was secure, and then hopped aside to watch the cut as it was pulled up onto the deck.
“We’re eating tonight!” Both Nelson and my Papa cheered. I felt sick, but smiled to make it seem like I was happy too.
I had to stop cutting after that. I said it was because I got tired doing it, so Nelson sighed and shook his head and Memo said it’s okay, I’ll just go back to being a tail for a while and build up some strength. When I was older, maybe next season or the one after, I could come back and cut. I’d be a man then.
I didn’t tell them the real reason, not ever. I didn’t want to tell them about the nightmares I was having about me cutting the ship, hearing that sow screaming over and over until the hull fell away to reveal blood and ribs and rolling white eyes. I didn’t want to tell them that the hulls, the ships that I thought were dead, hummed and sighed when I was alone on the deck. The when it was only me and the drone and The Boss and The Man I could feel the heat of the deck under my soles, hear the moan of wind through the Journey’s body.
I didn’t want to tell them that we weren’t walking on a corpse fat with pay, but a bound and gagged prisoner, one that we cut and broke apart inch by inch on a beach surrounded by other scenes of torture. We were the killers. The ships weren’t dead. We were the killers. We killed the ships and the men who sold us the ships and each other.
As the weeks stretched into months, I stopped waking up before the sun and started sleeping until I was forced awake. The sunrise seemed to lose color, even, gold washing to pale yellow, orange to a soft salmon, until every morning felt just as cold and as grey as one in the deepest of winter.
The work grayed as well. I learned all the songs and sang along, but the desire to add my voice to the many was gone. It felt like breathing, only less vital for some reason.
After a time, it all blended into one echoing chorus, one mélange of sound that rose on the sea wind above the breaking beach. The hiss of thermal torches, the hoarse singing of work songs, the clatter of steel plates as they were dragged up on deck and loaded onto the flatbed back of the drone.
Even at night I could hear the sound, or the ghost of it, calling from over the inland dunes to me as I tried to sleep on my cot. Days ran together, becoming weeks and months, and every night I could hear the ghosts at their work until one night I woke up on top of the last dune before the beach, screaming at the phantoms to stop killing them.
“’Them’?” Memo asked when he found me.
“The ships,” I sobbed. I woke up with tears streaming down my face, but now I cried because men don’t cry and I’d just been caught at it.
“They’re already dead, Chavo.” Memo hugged me close, hiding my face from the other men of our camp who came to check on the screaming. “They had long, happy lives out there on the Big. They saw all they needed to see,” he murmured. “Even the smallest one got to see more than we’re ever gonna. Think of it like this: now they get to go and get worked into new things. Maybe even another ship, if they’re lucky.”
I felt him turn and wave the other men off. No one protested, no one laughed at me. I wondered if they’d all been like me once, weeping over the corpses of titans, of vessels that’d carried the world in their bellies and seen every land under the sun.
“Everything gets broken down and remade,” he said to me after the rest of the boys left. “I learned that in school. Everything moves in a big old wheel, a cycle. Ships, people, even the world.”
I hugged my brother tighter.
“Come on,” he said. “You gotta get back to bed, we have work tomorrow.”
I nodded and followed him back to camp, where Nelson was fast asleep.
Memo died three months later. I took his words as comfort in time.
Looking back Memo’s death was one of those things that no one is really to blame for. Really, though, someone was, but the cause was so minor or set in motion so far ahead of the event that it wasn’t worth finding out.
Half a year had gone without incident on the Journey. We’d cut and loaded and sang and built up our payout, keeping it banked with Iglesias. My fingers and toes started to stain and I felt the same way about that as I did about the first dusting of hair on my cheeks and chin. Nelson taught me to sing. Memo taught me to read. I loved them both all the more for their lessons.
I don’t remember much about the day that it happened, only that it happened all at once and with such fury that I spent the next three weeks lying on my stomach on a cot while the flash burns on my back healed.
Nelson came to visit me once. He spent the whole time crying, apologizing for Memo’s death, saying that he couldn’t face Mama and Papa because Memo had really been the favorite and that there was another breaker team that wanted to hire him. That he had to leave tonight if he wanted to get the job, which he did, because that meant Mama and Papa would have some money coming in and maybe then they’d forgive him.
Someone from the East Atlantic Breaker Company came once to give me my pay and to inform me that Memo’s earnings had been retained by the Company, pending “assessment of damages and responsibility regarding the drone explosion aboard the Journey.” I could read the contract that the company man offered me, which only reminded me of Memo. The company man told me that the Boss and Iglesias had been killed in the explosion and that their wages were being retained as well, so I shouldn’t feel so put out. He offered me a spot on the waitlist for one of their company breaker teams, but I used some of the curses Nelson taught me to get him to leave.
When I could stand, I left my bed and saw I was only an hour’s walk from the breaking beach. I’d been recuperating at a medical tent set up by the East Atlantic, originally meant to be temporary until a proper clinic was finished sometime in the nebulous future; as of right now, the permanent clinic was nothing more than a flooded foundation a hundred yards from the tent.
It was a winter morning. All fog and a light rain off the water. The season had been approaching before the explosion, and it looked as though it had arrived for good by the time I woke up.
As I went to leave, one of the medics stopped me. “Journey, right? Hang on a second, let’s get you some clothes.”
I nodded, looking through her. I could hear the sounds of the beach, carried on the wind from the ocean. I looked down and saw that I wore nothing but a thin paper smock to cover my front. The chill hit me then, and I climbed back into my cot and wrapped myself with the blanket they’d given me.
“You’re going to want to watch the dressings on your back,” the medic said. She’d come back with a bundle of clean, if distressed clothing. “There’re some metal from the ship left in there that we couldn’t get out. It’s harmless, but it’s going to take some more time to heal.” She offered me a pack of sterile dressing stamped with the logo of the East Atlantic. “Here. If you keep it clean you’ll be fine. It’s going to scar, though, nothing you can do about that.”
I finished belting on the pants she’d given me. “Thanks,” I said as I took the dressing. As I put the dressing into my bag, I saw my fingers were stained like my brothers’. My palms were toughened with calluses. A healed burn twisted around my arm, puckering some of the flesh into shiny scar tissue. I slipped my feet into the boots and laced them up. It felt good to have something on my feet again. I thanked the medic for the clothes and left the tent.
An hour later I stood atop the last dune before the descent to the beach. The wide swath of coast looked much the same, but wore a winter’s palate of gray and white. The ships were no longer bright spots of color on a golden shore, but dull smears of rust and metal on black sand. Breaker teams moved towards them in ragged lines, some riding their drones in, others hauling dumb sledges behind them. Waves ran up and down the alleys between the ships, and I didn’t envy the breakers who had to brave the beach in winter.
One team passed by and their Boss, a fat man in grimy overalls and a patched parka called out to me from his seat atop their drone. “Hey Chavo,” He called, using my brothers’ nickname for me. It was a common nickname for young men, usually affectionate but coming from the Boss’ mouth it felt vile, mocking. “Chavo, you need work? Your hands are black as night, boy, I’ll pay you twice what those Company men offer.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Ok Hombre,” the Boss said. He flicked the side of his drone and it started forward.
“What happened to the Journey after the accident?” I called out after him. “I don’t see her down there.”
The Boss stopped. “Company got another team to finish breaking her,” He shouted over his shoulder. “Still got a half-season’s worth of good metal once they cleaned it off,” he whistled. “Big fish. Listen, my team does good business, and there are more ships arriving every day.”
“Big wheel,” I said. The Boss looked at me like I was crazy, so I told him I’d think about it, then turned and left the dune.
The sound of the breaking followed me as far as the town, where I boarded the first bus that arrived, pushing my way through the flood of eager new recruits. I was the only man on board when the bus pulled away. After a time the burns on by back began to itch, so I sang one of Nelson’s songs to take my mind off of it. As the beach vanished in the distance behind me, I thought whether or not I’d go back to Mama and Papa, or stay on the bus and go see what I could see.