The man turns his head and spits and his thick saliva lands in a clump of wild grass on the verge by the side of the road. It glues two blades together as it slides the length of them before pooling at the roots and seeping into the damp soil. The warmth of the man evaporates as the ground envelopes his discarded enzymes and electrolytes and absorbs his DNA. The earth accepts this gift but remains hungry.
Each step of the man’s running shoe kicks a spray of overnight rain into the air in a transparent arc. The hair on the backs of his bare calves is matted with flecks of wet mud that the earth has spat back in return. It merges with the salt of his sweat and forms a new substance from the discarded parts of each of them.
At this hour, there are few cars along this stretch. The road here is thin and the tarmac uneven and split. Despite the quiet, the man chooses to turn off and head deep into the country. He moves along rutted, tractor tyre-carved paths that edge rolling barley fields. With the barrier of tarmac removed, the earth now feels the slow rhythmic pulse of his every step. It tremors with his cadence.
As the man’s breath cools in the early-morning air, it forms plumes of condensation that drift to the ground and settle like fine dew. This ghost of breath is purer than his spit. It is formed deep within the mantle of him. The earth yearns for it, but it is too slight to satisfy. If only the man would place his lips directly to the soil and exhale so the earth could drink directly from him instead of offering only this modest taste.
When he reaches the end of the first field, a wooden gate blocks the man’s path. For centuries, other men have carved up sections of the earth and claimed them as their own. They have planted posts and run thousands of miles of fencing and wire to mark out these false boundaries. The earth does not mind. Eventually, it claims the men in return.
This man now slows and then stops. He keeps his legs moving in a simulation of running and places his hands on top of the gate before vaulting over. When he lands on the other side, his leading foot sinks deeper into the churned mud and for a moment the earth is able to hold on to it before he tears it free. The force of its removal flings severed hunks of the earth for metres in each direction.
Beyond the barrier, the gradient increases and the earth becomes firmer. The ground beneath the man transforms into something he might recognise as a winding path, carved into the side of the ancient hill by the passage of countless feet over thousands of years. It carries him away from the fields, coiling through a copse of woodland and into wilder, uncultivated land. To one side, the rising slopes are concealed behind an impenetrable wall of huddled trees. On the other, the earth falls away sharply. If the man were to lose his footing here, he would tumble down the sheer decline and lie broken far below, where the loose soil and tangled roots give way to jagged rock and the rough kiss of the sea. He would not be found. Although the sea might then steal him, as it often does pieces of the earth. It might choose to roll him over in the surf and smuggle him away with the tide.
But it is not here that he stumbles.
Beyond the woodland, the path arcs away from the coast and the man continues inland. Beneath his feet, the ground grows soft as he heads down into the trough between the hills. Here, a wisping veil of ground-mist conceals how boggy the land has become. The man slows. His gait becomes laboured and each step lands more heavily than the last. Before long, his ankle turns and he folds downs onto the wet ground. He makes no sound. He does not curse or scream or shout out as he thrusts his palms forward to break his fall and his arms disappear up to the wrists. His mouth opens, perhaps in surprise or perhaps, the earth thinks, in greeting. He turns his head as he falls. His only discernible act of resistance. Wet mud fills the contours of his ear, swims between his parted lips and coats his teeth. It sinks into his pores. He does not struggle. The earth feels the slowing of his pulse and savours the heat that leaks from his skin and into the soil as he consents to its embrace. He keeps his eyes open until the last and it is only then, as his head is fully submerged, that the earth feels the spasm of possible protest. The man’s back arcs slightly as he is pulled under. His lungs hold onto the surface air for a surprising length of time. He is married to the earth, deep beneath layers of oily peat, by the time the last of it spills from him.
Simeon Ralph is a writer, former-lecturer and musician with the DIY noise-rock band Fashoda Crisis. He has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at MMU and his work has appeared in several publications both online and in print. Originally from Essex, he now lives in Norwich.