Anne Beggs Cover Letter
: I started creative writing again a couple of years ago, after years of academic writing and then a career change.  I am not in an MFA program, and I have no intention of entering one–I have too many degrees already. I am a woman in her 40s who finally once again has the time and freedom to indulge in the creative explorations that brought me joy when I was younger. I think this is a good story, and I hope you do, too. I suppose I should include a trigger warning, however: It is dark. No sexual content but there is violence. Very dark and disturbing but well-written, according to my English teacher friends.  I hope you agree. Thanks for considering.


“The suffering is…it’s just sublime. Do you understand what I mean?…

…Do you know what Burke said about the sublime? ‘When we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth.’ It’s out of our depth. An amazing way to surrender yourself. You come out a different person.”

“You have a speech memorized.”

“This is life-changing.”

He looked at her face, trying to determine what lines indicated a changed life. “If it’s out of my depth, then by nature I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Clever. But seriously, Gil, it is. It is, well. It’s wrong but important. A paradox. You always say you love paradoxes.”

“A sublime paradox.”

“Well.” Julia was sipping very tart lemonade that made her lips purse and nostrils flare a bit. She never brought it up again. He didn’t believe he ever heard her talk about it again anywhere. Afterwards he wondered if she had told anyone other than him, if somehow he had been “chosen,” if the decision had not really been his at all anyway. He did not know what would have marked him as an ideal candidate. Other than the money, of course. He had never pushed himself in any way. He certainly was never one to test his endurance. He had never even run a half marathon. In certain ways that had been an advantage, as he had no longing for gear, no whining monologues about compression socks and the best repair creams. For a while he had even been able to observe. But detachment was hubris, and hubris does not endure.


They picked him up in the commuter train parking lot in the afternoon. He had taken the early afternoon train that day, so there were fewer people who would have noticed. It was very smoothly done, a slim young man in a dark suit slipping up behind him while Gil unlocked his car. Within one minute he was quietly cuffed and helped into a dark van before he could react. They drove for about four hours, maybe, long enough for the sun to go down. Two more people were picked up and put in the van before they got to the airfield. Sacks were put over their heads before they were let out of the van, and they were marched up a ramp into what must have been a cargo plane.

The thirst was the thing. The thing he knew would be the first torture. They all knew that, but there’s always that one guy, although in this case it was a woman, that one person who thinks that complaining will, well he didn’t know what. It didn’t elicit any sympathy, because they were all equally uncomfortable, and they were still in too much shock to bond with each other. It simply served to mark her as One of Those, those annoying weak ones who will drag everyone down. She didn’t last very long. Gil didn’t know what happened to her. She just disappeared after a month. She had had the shits the worst of all of them, maybe it was even dysentery. She had probably signed the evacuate rider. But he didn’t know. Nobody asked, either.

There were twenty of them on that plane, and probably a hundred already at the depot when they arrived. There were a few buckets to piss in and a water trough, and the wooden shed had a few glassless windows for ventilation. There were the expected sticklers for history, who commented on the transportation and the holding pens, critiquing the gender separation as inaccurate. There were the expected veterans of Badwater and Barkley and Everest who compared stoicism. Gil assumed there were other writers. He didn’t ask. Over twenty-four hours their numbers doubled, and there was a lot of silent observation, sizing up the company. Or the competition. Some treated the entire experience as a race, a trial with winners and losers, a zero-sum game. Others competed against themselves, the athlete’s philosophy. The bhikkhuni had two followers at the end of the two months.

They began the march from the depot when the sun set on the second night. They had been given flat-soled canvas shoes and coarse wool pants and shirts. It was humid but not as warm as it could have been on a summer night. When he was young, growing up in Tennessee, Gil and his brother would pretend sometimes that they were Civil War soldiers as they ran through the meadows and the woods all summer. They were indiscriminate, sometimes fleeing from the Union and sometimes pursuing the Confederate enemy, and they would compare blisters and heat rash and tick bites. A skinny redhaired fellow trotting next to him gave Gil the side eye and he realized he must have had a creepy smile on his face, remembering his childhood world. “It’s not totally real, though, because we’re not wearing wool uniforms,” his brother had said one year, but their mother drew the line at sewing Civil War uniforms for her children. “That would be disrespectful,” she said. He was able to keep his wool clothes at the end, but he locked them away in a trunk and did not show them to his brother after all.

The earliest revelation he had was how a smell could become an actual physical discomfort. The first time he stepped in someone’s feces was in the depot shed. An older man had lost control of his bowels, hadn’t made it to the bucket in time, and it was running down his pant leg. He was crying, stumbling, clearly wanted to sink to the floor but luckily a couple of big-shouldered men helped to prop him up against the wall so he didn’t have to sit in his own shit. A tense discussion was held as to whether they should use some of the water in the trough to rinse away the shit left on the floor. It stayed there, stinking, and as the heat rose during the day and the piss smell got worse, a couple of men retched along the wall, and by the end of that second day his head pounded from the olfactory horror. He was glad that no food had been offered since the stale bread and mushy apples that morning, because he did not think he could move his jaws.

It began to rain during the night march, which was a blessing. It washed off some of the stench. The women and men were together. He felt relief that at least he did not have to deal with bloody pants, and then decided that he would not add guilt to feelings of schadenfreude during the experience. Was that why women hadn’t been in armies throughout history? But Viking women raped and pillaged. He wondered what they did when they got their periods. Maybe they used fur padding. His brain was able to ramble like this for a surprising length of time, which made the march go by a little easier, although the terrain was rough and his feet had started to bleed a little. A couple of people had tripped, one twisting her ankle, and the guards roughly hauled them up and pushed then with their heavy rifles to keep going. She hobbled, tears streaming down her face, but she kept going. The march used to be the most likely part to get shot. He remembered that from the fine print. No one had been shot during the march for the past seven years, though. Maybe some people prepared for it now. The marathoners shone with zen-like contentment. For a while there was a man trotting next to him who mumbled Beatles songs even while he grimaced and clutched a cramp.

The sun was up, maybe nine in the morning in the real world, and it was starting to get hot when they got to the camp. It was very brown. There were tall electrified fences topped with concertina wire. Gil had assumed that. Four low-roofed barracks were painted barn red, and to the right of the gate were two two-story brick buildings that must be the command centers. They had been escorted and harassed by a series of uniformed guards during the march, a few on horseback and some on two small, motorized vehicles, all carrying heavy rifles that so far they had only used for shoving and intimidation. There were two guards with machine guns on watch towers at the camp, though, and Gil was surprised that this triggered a grip of terror on his heart. This was a familiar image; one saw this scene in pictures and movies all the time. He had been in a car crash once, when he was in his twenties. The same thing had happened then. He had been dumbfounded by the utter terror he felt by something that should have been so familiar. What good is television if it does not prepare you for the action of real life? he thought, and he wondered if that was brilliantly snide or banal. He wanted to run the line by someone, but he didn’t.

One of the guards turned and shot down a squirrel that was trying to make its way across the yard, and the tooth-shattering rat-tat-tat of the machine gun made some of them scream. A guard got angry at one woman whose screams turned into hysteria, and butted her with the rifle so hard she fell down, half conscious. Another woman helped her up but kept her eyes down, and they shuffled in the gate with the first group of twenty. That was the first group in. The line went way back. Gil was in the middle, a good place to be, he thought, since he could watch the procedure and prepare but would still get to the barracks early enough to hopefully get a bunk by a window. He did, but then he was afraid that they would get called out into line before the barrack filled and a later arrival would claim his bunk while he was outside being assigned his number. He looked at the others with suspicion, calculating who had a trustworthy face, already skeptical of the short balding man suggesting that they begin with a prayer.

Gil hadn’t expected the amount of prayer, although in hindsight it was inevitable. A group met at sunrise every morning to whisper some sort of lauds, and there were several vespers circles. They seemed nonspecific, a hodgepodge of spirituality, but he did not partake. The bhikkhuni, who managed to get number 7, did in fact share her rations, she seemed to thrive on air, but the short balding man (427) was always first in line at the mess and he became quite sharp with the old man who accidentally almost retched on his stack of prayers. He lost a few followers after that.

It was one week in when Gil started thinking of poetry. It was the moon, presenting its beauty to all for free but so cold and indifferent to suffering. He was sure there were a half dozen poems at least that celebrated the moon’s beautiful coldness, but it still felt quite profound and authentic in its own way. A discovery from a different state of being. He composed some poems for the next two weeks, using a pencil stub someone had gotten from a cleaning shift in HQ. He wrote key words on the wall when he lay in his bunk. He recited them to himself at night, changing lines according to taste and memory. Then he stopped. He thought in prose from thereon.

Hunger and thirst make you irritable, heat makes you exhausted, and incessant verbal and physical abuse make you hopeless. It seemed authentic for three weeks. They rotated in the labor camp, one day attempting brickmaking and getting whipped for ignorance, the next day breaking rock salt with ball hammer, and on to a slaughterhouse, field labor, a porta potty collection center, and a crematorium for what must have been the regional wildlife control center, for everyday a truck load of rotting raccoon, deer, and opossum carcasses were dropped off. The stench staunched the hunger, but the incessant heat made the thirst almost unbearable. A thin-lipped woman, 327, hoarsely croaked that she could bear it during the winter season, she had applied for the winter season, she shouldn’t have been seized in the summer. She received a few looks but no responses. Choice was not the point, would have been Gil’s answer, if he had felt obliged. He did not, however.

The heritage seekers were the saddest. They lovingly shaved each other’s heads on what they believed were Sunday nights—although no one could agree a hundred percent on what the days of the week were. Once, Gil saw tears streaming down the face of one who had been hit by a guard. He shouted “disgusting rat” at the older woman, whose head and arms were crusted with scabs, pushing her even harder with the rifle butt when she sank to her knees. A small smile wavered under the tears and scabs. Gil felt a wave of nausea. There is no absolution from history.

The Camp was devoid of color and identity. Which is to say it had an identity. One week in, “there are no black people here,” he thought. He was embarrassed it had taken him that long. He wasn’t sure if he should share this observation. A week after that a wiry man with a grey beard spoke up in the barracks. “My ancestors had slaves,” he whispered. “I never got it till now.” “Fuck you” said another hoarsely. “It’s not the same.” It was the closest thing to an argument that had happened in the barracks. But it didn’t go anywhere. They did not fight. Gil made eye contact with the bearded man, number 75. A new type of heritage seeker. But there is no absolution from history. They would leave.

The blond woman and the short man did not leave. The thirsty woman and a rail-thin man, a long-distance runner, had been the ones to disappear. Gil was surprised that he would have signed the evacuation rider. He had shut down, staring at the walls of the barracks after three weeks, refusing to leave for labor duty. The first two times he was dragged out by guards and beaten, then dragged to the animal crematorium where he just blankly pushed the fire button. The third time he stared at the wall, a guard came in and then just walked back out of the barracks, yelling at the rest of them to go to their assignments and hitting one just for good measure. The man wasn’t there when they returned that night. No one asked. “Evacuation rider” snorted one, but no one else commented or confirmed. “Some endurance.” A bushy-browed young man, 27, turned sharply and glared. “This is a different sort of alone.” He sat back, pensive. “There is no support. No one cheers you on. There are no mile markers.”

“Every day you just hate yourself a little more,” Gil added. The room was silent for a while after that. They didn’t know how long they would go on hating themselves. That was perhaps the point. They just waited. They waited to see who would be the statistic.

It was maybe a month in when the blond woman died. Number 360. Perhaps her life had come full circle, thought Gil on one very hungry night when his stream-of-consciousness babble was particularly trite. Number 360 simply didn’t wake up one morning. Screams came from the women’s barracks just after sunrise. The women all filed out for roll and work assignments soon afterwards. Two were assigned to carry out the body before reporting to their assignment. They never heard sirens. She must have simply been put on a van and removed.

Sometimes the men talked in the bunk for a brief time when it got dark. “Heart, I think,” said a man two bunks down.

“No way to know that. Could be a stroke, other organ failure. Ironically peaceful.” The darkly-tanned hawk-nosed man snorted. He was mean. Gil didn’t mind. In fact, he sort of admired him. He managed to retain a full personality through it all. Others became dull, washed out. The hunger and discomfort from lice and bed bugs and exhaustion from hard labor under the hot summer sun made most people passive and bland after a few weeks. Hawk (this is what Gil called him in his mind) remained sharp. He spoke in loud, declarative sentences till the end.

“245 was really upset. Kept crying. Dehydrated herself. Idiot.” Some just turned quietly petty.

A tenor voice further down the bunk began to sing “Fire and Rain,” and a couple others joined in on the chorus. One even attempted harmony. In the world Gil would have winced at the sentimentality. But he had become receptive. Passive. He fell asleep with James Taylor’s reedy voice echoing in his head.

Somehow they had grabbed hold of a “one per season” statistic. This was not based on anything other than a commonly agreed upon tradition, first shared in whispers in the holding pens. Gil never did trace the origin. Perhaps there was something in the 200-page legal document. One average seasonal casualty or something like that. It seemed like workable odds, one in five hundred. One in a hundred, you start to look around and count. One in two hundred, you consider, perhaps with confidence, but nevertheless there will be second thoughts. But one in five hundred is abstract.

There was no joy, not even complacency after that. But there was a subtle sense of resignation, as though everyone released a little bit of breath. So when 438 was shot, the others at the shit center just stared at the bloody body for a while. The blood slowly made a trail towards the effluent ditch that tricked away from the station. “This is authentic,” was the first coherent thought Gil had. He shuddered then at his own depravity, and tears ran down his cheeks for the first time in weeks. They cut through the filth like stripes. “You look like a zebra,” said the young man, the youngest at the camp. He stared for a minute and then clumsily wiped them off.

They dully looked over. The guard was barking at two men to hoist the body onto a small flatbed truck parked about 50 meters away. They stared at the guard and the men carrying 438. Gil realized the guard hadn’t yelled at them yet to get back to work. So they didn’t, not until he walked back and glared at them.

No other work teams knew, so the mess hall was the first opportunity to tell the story. Somehow no one seemed able to. They were first prompted when 440, who had become close to the dead man, kept looking and asking for his friend. “The guard shot him,” was all the young man answered. It was enough. A wave of shock rippled across the plank tables within five minutes. There were one or two pockets of animated discussion, but most tables settled into the dull stare of a frozen processor. Their eyes spun like stalled wheels as they picked at their small stale bread ration.

438 had talked back. Mildly. In a way that on previous occasions had merely gotten one put in the box. The guard was of no notable distinction either. It simply happened. He was shot, they stared, his body was carried away, they went back to work. “We paid for this.” The man in the bunk above rarely spoke. His voice was raspy. “We wanted it. We killed him.” “Fuck you.” There was silence then. They did not fight.

It took eight weeks for Gil to recognize the queer despondency he felt, separate from the hunger and physical exhaustion and pain from bite-encrusted legs and blistering sunburn. That was corporeal. He could seek salve for the soul with a prayer group. The prayer group members had dwindled, though, and he thought he knew why. There was no redemption in their suffering, no cosmic parity. They could not achieve abjection. And without abjection, the depths of human suffering are empty. They are banal. He had reached the banality of suffering. He laughed. He laughed so hard he vomited, a thin vomit of gruel. He stared at the puddle for a few minutes, tears and snot dripping down. “Here you go, mate,” muttered the ginger-haired young man in the bunk above, who tossed down a filthy rag that had been a shirt. He cleaned up his mess.

Now they just waited. Some wondered out loud when the end would come. But most waited silently. Three months was the average, but fifteen weeks was possible. After ten weeks, every morning tasted of pain and hope. The third day after they reached the 100th tally mark on the wall, Gil stared at the ground. He stared at the grimy planks in the barrack, at the red dusty dirt in the yard, at the tufts of grass that lamely appeared in spurts around the rock salt depot. He asked himself a question for every crack of his hammer. “What could I eat by now?” “How much do I weigh?” “Are my legs scarred?” “What was 438’s name?” “What do the guards do off season?” “Will Tammy go back to our arrangement?” “When will I even want to have sex again?” “Why isn’t Hawk a skeleton like the rest of us?” These last two he said out loud. Maybe he had ceased to be able to discern what was inside his head by now. The Hawk, pounding salt next to him, looked over and laughed. It was a short, dark type of laugh. A movie scene laugh.

“Ants,” he said.


“Full of protein.” The Hawk subtly reached over a couple of feet when the guard wasn’t looking and pointed out an anthill near a tuft of grass. He dropped a small piece of dry bread that he had tucked in his shoe. In five minutes it was covered with them. He handed it to Gil, who popped it in his mouth like a machine. He did not think. “Grasshoppers too.”

The dry bread stuck in Gil’s throat. “Why didn’t you tell us?” he croaked.

The Hawk looked at him a long time. Then he looked at the guard and gave the short movie laugh again. “What happens if we all crouch down, fighting over anthills like mangy sparrows?”

“They beat us.”

“They would destroy every anthill in the camp. Pull out every blade of grass.” He looked down and pinched a stray, licking it off his finger. “Ants for everyone means ants for no one.” He went back to hammering.

Gil stared at the anthill. “So why are you telling me now?”

“Because we leave tomorrow.” The Hawk seemed sure of this. Gil believed him. He did not ask why. He felt he had used up all of his questions.

The Hawk was correct. Early afternoon the next day a long caravan of black shuttle buses came up to the gate. Half of the camp was loaded and then the vans came back three hours later for the rest. It was nothing but scrub pine forest for an hour. Then they came to a small regional airfield where a jet waited. Some of them broke down and sobbed. A few held each other in a long embrace. But most were like Gil: silent, avoiding eye contact. Itchy from real and imagined bites. Nauseous. There was a metallic taste in his mouth. He knew if he looked at the others he would hate them.

He tried to avoid mirrors. He first saw himself in the airport before he boarded his flight home, as he washed his hands over and over. The smell of the chemical cleaner in the airport bathroom made his eyes water and his head throb. He smelled himself for the first time in three months. He looked like an old man. He had reached his depth, but not beyond. There was nothing there. Once he was home, he did not talk about it again.