by Sarah Halford
Sarah Halford lives and works in Maine, where she writes fiction and essays and practices as a Jungian analyst. She has received the Editor's Choice Prize in the E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest and has been published in Maine Voices: A Celebration of the People of Maine and the Places They Love. She is also an oral storyteller and is originally from the Cotswold region of England.
He floated in a green lagoon below the verge of waking. A thick snort jolted him; the hair on the nape of his neck stood erect. His legs peddled fast, toes stretched to grip rank mud at the bottom of the lagoon as he levered himself upright. The black boar of nightmare panted at the edge of the water. Eyes blazed and drool blew around its snout like glass hair at the edge of hot lava. He jumped awake. Words like pincers gripped the inside of his skull; getting drunk last night had not silenced the voices. He groaned; sweat soaked the sheet under him and slimed his armpits.
He felt the sack of Mandy's sleep-softened body pull taut, his groaning and the smell of his sweat alerting her. He knew how it went, this familiar morning dance of action and reaction. The fights started with the first "Good morning" and escalated until he bolted out of the apartment and headed, his red Honda motorcycle whining like a strained wire, to his job at the imported car garage. At least, that's where Mandy thought he went.
Her breathing changed. This was how she calmed herself: in, out, in, out. He tried to match his to hers. A slow, steady rise and fall of his chest, more like a tide than the howling gale that blasted him through his days. He gently swung his legs out of bed and limped into the bathroom. The sickle scar on his right thigh leered at him in the mirror. He turned on the shower and leaned into the hard spray.
His nightmares lurked between them like a third person in their bed. He was caught between here and Afghanistan, and he couldn't get home. He couldn't talk to Mandy about it. He tried, just like he tried to talk to the therapist at the VA, tried to tell him the meds were useless. Last night, like so many nights, the vodka had ignited in his belly and broken the barbed locks on his tongue.
"How was work?"
"Why, what have you heard? Who have you been talking to? It wasn't my fault. Get off my back."
Mandy raised her hands in surrender and backed into the kitchen. He heard her boiling the kettle for the chamomile tea she drank before sleep. Living with him, she needed it. He was good at yelling but he couldn't just talk.
Her green terry-cloth robe was missing from the closet when he reached for a clean shirt; a spoon clinked on the glass coffee pot in the kitchen. Fingal would be shadowing her as usual. Their dog gave Mandy a steady presence that he couldn't give. Fingal was built for the chase, yet the white greyhound was the most abiding presence in her life. He started as a phone chirped in the kitchen. In one silent, fluid motion he was in the kitchen behind Mandy. His arm snaked around her and grabbed his cell phone off the counter as she reached for it. "Oh!" she squeaked. He had scared her. He did that a lot lately. Fingal yawned.
"Yes?" He walked into the bedroom and shut the door. For the third time this week, Gloria's demands cut into his ear drum. Her shrill voice shattered any composure the shower had helped him gather. He couldn't do it. He couldn't agree to put their dad into an institution. He began to shake. His voice wouldn't stay low; the dark thing had him again. "Go to hell!" he screamed, "I said I'll decide soon!" The phone hit the wall. He stood still, pulling each breath slowly in until he had mastered Mandy's rhythm again. He'd have to call back and apologize and listen to her fears for him again. But not yet. Gloria always forgave him. He was a raging maniac since the war spat him out, not that she would be cruel enough to put it that way. He was pretty useless. Even so he couldn't watch and do nothing for their dad. He had to fight. Search and destroy. That's what he knew. He would not give quarter again. But as in those bleak Afghani hills, he couldn't locate the enemy. The hidden insurgents eating his dad's brain from the inside out were well hidden. The fight seemed already lost. But putting him in a home was not an option. That was worse than doing nothing. So . . . he would fight the enemy he did know. He would find and kill that damned boar and get his sleep back. He picked up the phone and punched in Jim's number.
# # #
Leaning against the kitchen doorway he watched Mandy turn on the hot water and squirt dish soap into the bowl. She usually paused to breathe in the bright lemon scent, but not today. Her black hair, a chiaroscuro in the winter sunlight, made his belly flip. And he loved that word. "Like the black glow in a cat's fur in the late afternoon sun," said Mr. Lang, their high school Art and Literature teacher. From your lips to my ears, he'd thought. She'd laughed with pleasure whenever he touched her hair and repeated it.
Mandy reached for the glass he used for vodka, the only medicine that calmed him enough to sleep. She attacked the baked-on lasagna from last night's dinner; he loved her aunt's recipe, the aunt who married the cook from the local diner and moved to Canada. Reciting details of their life together helped steady him. As the last layer of singed cheese peeled from the dish into the soapy water, he came toward her straining a smile. He felt that old, familiar lurch at her look of love and fear.
"Jake, what is going on?"
He could only shake his head like a bull with blood in its eyes and pull her to him. Outside the window, a birdís twitter snipped through the chill air as she fit herself to his body. Did she remember the autumn morning they spread three kinds of seed on the grass hoping the goldfinches would approve of one? Without speaking, he kissed her hair, avoided her eyes, and left the apartment. When he shipped out with his unit he had turned for a last glimpse of her from the mouth of the tunnel leading to the plane. He saw his beautiful Mandy, young and vital and scared; and in a flash he saw a woman as old as the hills, sorrow carved deep around her eyes, lips pulled back from her ululating mouth, old shoulders squared and firm enough to bear the endless wars that gobbled her young. He was deaf to her dreadful cry. He didn't want to see that woman again. He squeezed his eyes with thumb and forefinger and stepped into the hallway. The elevator doors lurched open and a minute later he stood on the icy sidewalk. He remembered a poem he read in junior high about February. Something about a dog frozen in a ditch. It was too slick for the motorcycle today.
He knew Mandy watched him from their kitchen window three floors up. He plunged his fists into his jeans pockets, pushed his shoulders up to grip his ears with the ratty old sheepskin collar of his work jacket. He stared at the gutter for a long moment, then turned and walked to the end of the block.
He jumped on the bus as it pulled away from the corner. A man in a checkered cap yelped as Jake landed on his toe. "Sorry," he mumbled. Brian-next-door shrugged and looked away as Jake swung into a nearby seat. Brian kept a massive Old English sheepdog whose bark rattled glass.
"You must call the landlord." Mandy had frowned, hands on hips.
"I can't get near a phone at work," he'd lied. "You do it." Had she? Another thing he let slide. Today he must be aware of everything. He stared out at the familiar world: Sith's grocery, Singh's Oriental Spices. They pulled into the stop just beyond Gordon's Liquors where he would usually change buses to get to work. Brian drooped down the steps; Jake stayed in his seat. He had to keep going. The bristles under his collar stirred; there was no going back to Mandy until he had executed his plan.
As the bus roared past the everyday landmarks, he concentrated on breathing slowly. The sound of the engine laboring through the gears reminded him of Jim, who took the side of every struggling machine. There was nothing he didn't know about engines. And not much he didn't know about Jake that mattered. Jim was the only one he could open up to. They'd had two tours together in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The bus sputtered. Behind his eyes, their last mission replayed itself. They were reconnoitering along the edges of a dried-out valley. A body sprawled just off the trail in scrub. They heard what might have been a groan. A scan of the area revealed only a few spirals of dust dancing through the heat shimmer. Was this a trap? The body looked like an old goat herder struck down by a snake or maybe a stroke. The hot wind rattling the bushes was the only sound. Jake held rank--his decision. They would have to make sure that it was a dead body. Jim fanned out to the left, Rob to the right. Rob reached the body first. The old man was breathing. His lips were parched; Rob lifted his head and grabbed for his canteen. An explosion; scraps of flesh and metal rained down. A metal splinter plowed into Jake's thigh; something broke inside his head. "Down!" he screamed. His finger glued itself to the trigger; his gun stuttered at bushes, rocks, even the yellow dirt. He keeled over onto his back, his bullets perforating a cloudless blue sky as he fell. When he came to, his buddies from camp were bending over him, strapping up his thigh where the flying steel had sliced a sickle-shaped wound. He hoped it was from Rob's equipment; that would be justice. But it could just as well have come from the hardware of the IED concealed in the old man's rags. No one could patch up the guilt he felt. Jim was ringed by medics who were tending what remained of the left side of his face. In time his and Jim's bodies had healed over. Rob was killed. He couldn't make that real, somehow. Those three words didn't do it. He tried reducing it to two words. Rob died. Nope. That didn't do it either. The words didn't match the way Rob's body was shredded into bloody pieces. Extinguished. Better. Like the goat herder. Which body parts belonged to the righteous and which to the infidel?
He sucked in air hard and tried to focus on the scene streaming past the bus window. Bare trees offered their boney outlines for identification. He was the only passenger on the bus now. The driver made a stab at conversation. "You like the Titans' chances on Saturday?" Jake grunted; the driver locked his eyes back on the road. After the explosion his body shook constantly. Drugs knocked his mind into a black hole for a while. Then the nightmares started. Walking into that trap ended one friend's life and disfigured another. His fault. At times he was paralyzed by guilt that ate him a piece at a time; at times he wanted to kill everyone. Especially the lying generals with their shining stars and promises of honor and glory. They fooled him just as they had fooled his father during Vietnam. Took his loyalty and his strength and turned him into a monster. And the monster he had become looted his nights.
A mile outside town, the bus dropped him by the side of the road and picked up a woman with a small brown suitcase. Looked like she knew where she was going. He coughed as the blue exhaust fumes hit the back of his throat. He had a five-mile walk, or rather a long limp, into the woods ahead of him. He felt the skeletal trees watching as he rubbed the scar on his thigh. On the trail, bronze and copper leaves slick with frost reminded him to drop his awareness into his feet, tracker style. Over the phone, Jim had tried to argue him out of coming here alone.
"You're on a mission, buddy. No one goes on a mission alone."
Mandy would be scared for him too, if she knew his plan. He'd disappeared from her before, a day here and there, never talking about where he went. These days her grey eyes told him she was scared of the raging, disappearing stranger he had brought home from the war along with the thigh wound and a collection of medals. But who was he kidding? She'd know somehow that this time something was different.
These dappled Tennessee woods were full of memories of the summer they spent here with the family after high school.
"Do you remember, Jake?"
"What?" He always played dumb at first.
"The way the morning mist got tangled in the oak leaves, like secrets."
"And the way we got tangled under the trees!" He circled her waist with his arms.
They wove their own warm secrets in that place, a fabric that still held, for now. That autumn, they got engaged and split up, Mandy to go to college and he to join the Marines like his father and grandfather. College would come later, the Marine recruiter promised. It hadn't. He remembered his grandpa, a spit-and-polish veteran of WWII, saying, "You youngsters are blessed to be going to college, but we graduated from the college of life!" He meant it. But still his disappointment sounded through. College was impossible in the hard-grind years of the Depression. Instead of designing bridges, he managed a shoe store like a military operation. But that summer the beauty of the Tennessee hills and valleys made everything seem possible. In a clearing near a little lake he and Mandy had planted a stick and called the place their Paradise. He hoped the stick was still there.
His father would have understood what he was doing, would have wanted to come with him; but these days he didn't understand much of anything. Jake pushed his hands deeper into his pockets. "My mind's mush too," he thought. He could take being crazy if his dad had been OK. He'd always been so sharp, and tough. And he wrote poetry--about Vietnam. His father's long letters had pulled him through his own war. He still needed his help to make some sense of the world and its endless wars, its crippling losses. But his dad was far from OK. He felt himself teetering again. Hadn't his dad given enough? He growled into the cold air. He hoped the woods would welcome him after so many years. He needed to come; he needed to fling off memories that flapped around him like torn skin and leave them to decompose.
Vietnam had almost finished his father. In those first months after he crept home to a hostile country, Jake's mother and sister frequently ran to a neighbor's when they were afraid to stay in the house with a man who suddenly raged at them as if they were the enemy. The first few times they hid in the bathroom behind the locked door while he threw dishes around in the kitchen yelling his pain, then stomped off into the night. The day came when he caught hold of their mother and shook her hard. After that they ran to the neighbors' house as soon as the yelling got to a certain pitch. One day, his mother squared her shoulders and told his father that unless he started attending programs for returning Vets she and Gloria were leaving permanently. He didn't go, but he did start volunteering at a homeless shelter, which was OK with his mother. He visited a storytelling workshop, just to listen.
"But he couldn't just listen," said Gloria. "The first time he told his story, he wept." Her voice was edged with awe, her eyes wide.
She owned this story of their father before Jake was born. She had gathered fragments from their mother and the neighbors and, as time passed, from their father. She patched together a tent of stories into which she drew Jake--as she had on that warm night on the porch when he was ten. She read to him from her notebook with the blue tapestry cover. About three pages in, he watched the authority of her nineteen years melt away. Their father was a mystery to her too. She stopped reading and put her arm around him. He let her. She spoke quietly into the patient dark.
"He was in good company. Most of the other participants were homeless Vets. They all listened to him, kind of protected him as he crept back into those booby-trapped jungles. It was like they helped him drag the bodies of his friends from those swamps full of poison. You know, he told his story every week for about a year. He cried most times."
As she spoke, Jake looked down at the porch floor and clenched his fist around his question. He couldn't ask a girl why his father cried. Now years later, after his own war, he had his answer. According to Gloria and his mother, at the end of the year their father enrolled in a poetry class at the Continuing Ed. Program held in the high school. After that, he wrote poetry in moments scrounged from his job at the lumber yard and evenings after supper. Gradually the rages diminished--not that they disappeared completely even by the time Jake came along. For as long as he could remember Jake had scanned his father's face to spot the monster hunched just behind his eyes. Sometimes he wasn't quick enough, and it fell on him. But it came much less often as his father's demons and angels found places to live in his poetry. He gave them gifts of poems.
Every childhood birthday Jake ran to the breakfast table yelling, "Lucky Leon!" and grabbed the new pages of "The Adventures of Lucky Leon" waiting next to his plate of chocolate chip pancakes. Lucky Leon the swashbuckling rabbit sported a black patch over one eye and solved mysteries on the high seas. Once, when he was snooping around in his sister's room, he found the shoebox covered with fabric where Gloria kept her birthday poems. His mother always found a birthday sonnet beside her plate. He was not allowed to read it, but her blushing smile pulled the world together for a warm moment. The sonnets stopped when a drunk driver's car rammed her against a storefront and killed her. He was in junior high and he'd never heard anyone howl the way his father did, not until he went to war.
When he joined the Marines his father blanched and shook his head. "Son!" There was no mistaking his terror and his pride. He knew his family didn't understand his decision; they had all lived the effects of war through his father. But Jake had to reclaim the tradition of his father and grandfather. They were warriors; they believed in their task to protect and when necessary to fight. But there was more he had to do. His father's war had been a mistake, and he, Jake, would bring back honor to him. Semper Fi forever.
"Dad, I'm going to make it right."
"You can't, son."
But he was eighteen and so sure that after Vietnam there would never be an unjust war. The recruiter had painted a picture of honor and glory that coincided exactly. Or that is what he heard.
The recruiter came to the high school. Tall, smart, athletic, he had a quota of recruits to fill and the skills he needed to accomplish that. In the video young Marines in full combat gear searched an enemy stronghold while a deep, steady voice declared "We are the tip of the spear."
"Joining the Marines," said the recruiter "was the proudest thing I will ever do in my life."
Jake felt that longing to prove himself among peers in situations far more dangerous than the football field.
"We take care of each other. My buddy has my back and he knows I have his. Semper Fi." With a magnetic pull reminiscent of a tent revivalist the recruiter sang out, "Will you serve your Country? Are you worthy to be one of 'the Few, the Proud, the Marines'? "
Jake knew he was. And he already had a vision of what kind of warrior he'd be.
In the copper-colored Tennessee woods hunting boar with his father he had learned what it meant to be an honorable warrior. He had been a skinny, shy fourteen-year-old when his father brought him to these woods for his first hunt. His father was at home among these trees. His eyes grew alert, his nostrils twitched. He seemed to sense the presence of animals through the soles of his boots. On that bright winter morning, they held those wild, black mountains of flesh and fire in their rifle sights--and neither had pulled the trigger. They quietly lowered their guns. They spent the rest of the day tracking the sounder and mapping the forest from a boar's eye view. Mud wallows, acorn groves, sweet springs, and soft, earthy dens. They rested when the animals did, which was often. The grip of time let them go--until a massive, snorting boar charged from somewhere behind Jake's right shoulder. Everything slowed down. His father raised his rifle across Jake's body. The boar stopped, tossed his head, spraying the ground with drool. His father and the boar stared at each other along the barrel of the gun. Two battle-scarred warriors. In silent recognition, the boar snorted, lowered its head and disappeared into the trees. For his father and the boar, winning meant both would live. That was the moment Jake decided he would be a Marine.
But becoming a Marine hadn't made anything right. He had given all he could and he had failed them both. The stark message sounded all around him; he had returned scarred and raging, just like his father. Two warriors used by agendas they didn't understand, thrown into environments that ate life. They had survived, but he was sure his father was not getting the medical care he'd been promised. He was sure his memory problems were caused by Agent Orange. No one would admit to that. He kept fighting, but he still couldn't save his father.
In his dark moments he told himself that what his father and the boar had taught him in these woods was a lie. What happened that day was luck; the boar had spooked and run off, and the trigger on his father's rifle must have jammed. They were not great warriors. His father was a helpless, crazy old man and the boar was a monster thundering into his tormented nights and rage-filled days. They should have killed it the first time. Jake would take care of that; it was the only way to win and he was ready. He would hunt down that boar and stop the nightmares, kill the monster or be killed trying.
Two hours later, he stepped into a wooded clearing. Hoar frost salted black branches. Half hidden between two large pines was a tiny, dilapidated wooden shed. His father's hunting cabin. He limped into the single room and took a quick survey of its familiar contents. The rough-hewn table and chairs they cobbled from the wind-fallen maple, the stove with its two blackened pots and a kettle, all waited. Mice skittered as he walked to the back wall where his father had hung the map of the world according to the sounder. He put his finger on the spot where the cabin stood, and sighed. His shoulders dropped away from his ears, knotted muscles beginning to untangle. Exhausted, he flopped down on one of the two old cots.
# # #
As the low winter sun laced the ground with the shadowy fingers of bare branches, he hefted his hunting rifle and scanned the area before stepping into the clearing near the lake. He had spent the last hour meticulously cleaning his old gun and remembering.
"Here, Jake, you better have this." His father pulled a new rifle from behind the seat of the truck that day of their first boar hunt. He offered it to Jake. His hands shook as he took it.
"Thanks, Dad." He tried to drop his voice into the lower register he had recently discovered, but it escaped and squeaked the last syllable. His father had nodded gravely. An hour ago Jake had drawn that gun from under the floorboards and unwound the plastic and cloth swaddling. He oiled each part lovingly. Cinnamon scented the room from the Weapon Shield Gun Oil and masked the biting odor of mineral oil. This was no weapon of war, but an instrument in the ancient link between hunter and prey, where roles were interchangeable.
The dull metal glowed and the burnished wooden butt nestled in the crook of his arm as he stepped through arched birches. He sniffed the air and cupped his hand around the back of his ear. Enraged squealing was coming from his left--toward the place called Paradise. He walked as quickly as his limp would allow.
A huge black boar stood up to its knees in water fending off three hunting dogs, swinging its head, scything the air with its tusks, squealing with rage, blood running from its left haunch. A dog yelped hard. He could hear hunters yelling as they ran through the trees toward the baying dogs and their quarry. Everything slowed down. He knew he had plenty of time. All the time in the world, just as his father had when he held the trigger and waited all those years ago. He ran toward the trapped and wounded creature. He had time to notice that he was not limping. Like an ancient berserker, he whooped and yelled, waving his arms that held the gun and the stick that marked the edge of Paradise. The dogs and the boar turned their heads toward him in a slow, synchronized sweep. With ballet troupe precision, the dogs turned, water spraying around them like slowly settling streams of crystal; they ran out of the water and into a stand of oak. He locked his eyes on the boar. Would it charge? It slowly dipped its head toward him, then tossed it high. Drool flew like molten glass. Now at full speed, the boar tore along the edge of the lake toward him. His foot slipped under something solid. He toppled forward, and a loud crack vibrated up through his body. As the ground sped toward his face, the boar raced past; he felt a rush of hot breath, saw the glint of red blood on its haunch. As the side of his face hit the mud, the monster disappeared into the trees just beyond his right shoulder. The waiting dogs picked up the chase, drawing the hunters away from the clearing.
# # #
Those damn hunters were yelling again close by. He listened for the dogs. Would they finish him off for spoiling their hunt? But someone was calling . . ."Jake! Jake!" That wasn't right. The hunters didn't know his name. He shook his head; his eyes flew open. Searing fire was splitting his leg. Two figures and a white arrow of a dog were running toward him.
"Jake!" screamed Mandy. What was she doing here?
"Stay down," commanded a voice he would know anywhere; "Don't move," said Jim.
He braced, expecting the whine of sniper fire. Mandy and Jim dropped down beside him; Fingal nosed his ear.
"You're safe, buddy," said Jim.
Mandy shook out a blanket from her backpack and gently covered him. She extracted her water bottle.
"Jim called as soon as it was light to see if you made it home yesterday."
Yesterday? He tried to take in his surroundings. He was propped up beside the cabin door. A hammer of pain continuously slammed his leg. It was twisted and clearly broken.
"Look!" Jim nodded toward the ground.
Pointed hoof prints of many wild boar pocked the soft earth around them. Fingal snuffled the ground in delight. Jim picked up his gun and broke it open. He glanced quizzically at Jake. It hadn't been fired. Mandy put her water bottle to his lips. He took a sip, then a longer slug.
"What happened?" He was grateful for her calm.
Jim had already cut two saplings and was rigging a stretcher, using cord and webbing he found in the cabin. Jake told them about tangling his leg in mud and roots, hearing it snap as he fell, and blacking out as the pain beat him down. In his dazed state he must have dragged himself to the cabin doorway. About the hoof prints and how he had stayed warm through the night he could only shrug.
In the slower days to come he would tell Mandy all about rescuing the boar he had set out to kill, and about the boar and his father, the old warriors, who in these woods had taught him that letting live was harder than killing. He had felt betrayed by them when Rob died, and the fury of the ages had settled on his shoulders. But when he saw the trapped, bleeding boar standing in the lake holding off the dogs, they were two wounded warriors drawn together, and again they chose life. He knew now the boar could not simply be killed; it travelled through the generations and seasons protecting the sounder and the woods in which they live.
He looked up into Mandy's face sweet with relief and framed by the dark light of the winter sun in her hair. He smiled and reached for her. She planted her hands on each side of him to brace her weight and dipped gently into his embrace. Her mouth welcomed his kiss with a tenderness he had dreaded for so long. A sob hurtled into the back of his throat and his lips trembled against hers.
"All set." Jim set the stretcher beside Jake.
Mandy sat up; Jake rubbed his wet eyes. Working together they inched him onto the stretcher. When the fire in his leg was bearable again, he took Mandy's hand, "How's Dad?"
She stroked his rough cheek. "He's home with Gloria. They're waiting for you."
# # #
Jake picked up the fight for his father. He persisted, following trails through bureaucratic undergrowth, rooting around until dense resistance gave way. He made connections and gathered resources. Eye to eye with belligerence, he was immovable; and, gradually, his father began to receive the care he needed. As Jake's leg healed he brought his father out onto the forgiving land for as long as he could, and when the time came he scattered his ashes around the cabin in the woods near a place called Paradise. As to the endless, gobbling wars, he listened, alert as an animal for the old woman's cry.
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