Pam’s Head

by Michelle Ross

Every time I reach the surface with another load of gel, I pass Pam’s head. It’s buried beneath loads of the gel, as are her other parts. A calf here, shoulder there. Her parts are visible no matter how much gel we bring up from below because the gel is clear. She’s like a mosquito entombed in amber, only more strewn about. We had to tear her apart because she expired below, in the tunnels. Because getting her out of there whole was impossible. I’d never torn a body apart before, never carried another’s flesh in my arms. None of us had. But we’d torn apart the gel. We’d lifted and transported the gel. We’d deposited the gel. So we knew what to do. Pam was lifeless, like the gel. And like the gel, she was in the way. So we chiseled apart Pam’s body, broke her down into manageable loads. First I carried Pam’s left forearm up to the surface. It was a bit unwieldy, but not so unwieldy I needed to chisel it into smaller parts too. Then when I tunneled back down, all that was left was Pam’s head. The others had carried out every other piece of her. I didn’t even know that I didn’t want to touch Pam’s head until it was just me and Pam’s head, nobody else except Octavia in the distance, far enough away not to be responsible, close enough to see that Pam’s head was my responsibility. And so I lifted and transported and deposited Pam’s head on the surface near the entrance to one of the oldest tunnels. Because there’s work to do. Because building these tunnels is what we do, what we’ve always done. The tunnels go up to the surface, and they go down. They go horizontal, and they go diagonal. They intersect. Always there is more work to do, more tunnels to be made. Not because we are tunneling toward anything in particular, but because there is gel that hasn’t been tunneled. We do not rest. Still, Pam’s head. Sometimes when I’m carrying a load of gel up to the surface, I think it’s Pam’s head that I’m carrying. Then I pass Pam’s head, and I look down and see that all I have is gel. There will be other heads, though. Nadia has been slowing for a while now. Sometimes when I tunnel down and she’s the only one there, for a moment, I think she has expired. I think I am going to have to tear her apart. But then she starts chiseling again, and so I lift a new load of gel and transport it to the surface again, somewhere along the way forgetting again that it’s gel I’m hauling and not Pam’s head. And when I see Pam’s head again, I pause again and look down again to see what I’m carrying. Maybe this is me slowing too. I guess it’s wrong to say we’re not tunneling toward anything. We’re tunneling toward our deaths, all of us. With each load of gel we transport and deposit, we get closer. Maybe the others look at me now, frozen before Pam’s head, and wonder, like I do about Nadia sometimes, whether I’ve expired. I bet they feel grateful that I’m on the surface. That all they would have to do is deposit around me the loads of gel they’re already carrying. They wouldn’t have to carry me piece by piece out of the tunnels. They wouldn’t have to change course. They wouldn’t have to give me much thought at all.

Michelle Ross’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Arroyo Literary Review, The Common, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Hobart, Moon City Review, Paper Darts, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, and other journals. She’s fiction editor of Atticus Review.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Pam’s Head”?

    I recently bought an ant farm. Instead of dirt, it has this weird nutrient gel invented by NASA. So you can see everything going on in there. A few days after adding the ants, I noticed that the various parts of one of the ants’ bodies were scattered about the surface, buried beneath the balls of gel the ants had been hauling up in the process of making their tunnels. I wondered why the ant’s body was ripped apart, why the parts were scattered. I concluded that the ant must have died below in the tunnels, that they had to tear her apart and carry her out of there to get her out of the way. I didn’t want the story to literally be about ants, though. I keep the ant farm next to my computer at work, and watching them work while I work (in a corporate office), well, there are certainly parallels.
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