They come to her in the dark the voices whisper, she hears them from behind half lidded eyes they sound like the children that once ran across the open field chasing the ball, a too slow bird a mortar shell whose fall outpaced them all, left them scattered, shattered, marked by simple wooden crosses that were taken for heat.
She strains to answer them the words thick on her tongue clogging her mouth like a gas soaked rag stuck into the thin neck of a bottle, lit, they explode inside her mind, the shrapnel tearing at her eyes red, only red, the sky seems aflame yet the sun has long since set behind the smoke of the fires.
They hover around her gently touching her cheek like a demented butterfly seeking nectar long dry she caresses the thick scar were her breast once stood proudly, but there is no feeling only numbness of too many bodies strewn on tables, across chairs which are broken to feed the flames which dance away into the snowy night.
She can see their masks hiding sneering lips spitting vitriol for what once was she curses them, faceless her eyes pressed shut by their tiny fingers, kneading the soft dough, pulling it taught, letting it snap back released by the sated mouth of the devil child who runs laughing up the hill chasing a dragonfly into the dawn.
The butterflies came in the night floating through the barracks window, mainly monarchs, orange and black but the occasional yellow, with more gossamer wings, and the odd white with small green patches, one to a wing.
There is a corner in my footlocker that is mine, where I can hide the tattered book of poems. A true poet is unafraid to write an ode in blood, if the situation requires drawn from her vein by a needle or the baton of the security force.
In the river downtown the cup floats along, carried on the current into which I cast my dreams when they no longer serve any purpose. I can easily aim the rifle at the silhouette and ease back on the trigger, but would the child’s skull explode with the impact of the round or merely cave inward, collapsing?
I can look into the mirror in the morning, before first light and see the shine on my head. The cancer is advancing, growing until I no longer have control and merely respond to its commands in carefully spit-shined boots as though anyone would give a damn waist deep in the fetid water of the rice paddies.
The heat is unbearable and you sweat at the thought of motion. You, forced march from your dreams, and the butterflies disappear into the exhausting night.
First Appeared in Blind Man’s Rainbow, Vol. 4, No. 3, February-March, 1993.
It is just that sort of summer day when the sparse clouds crawl ever more slowly across the city, peering down, as if wishing they could end their journey, knowing this won’t happen. On the fields of Falkirk and Culloden Moor stained with the blood of ancestors who, only now, claim me as one of them, allow me to wear the tartan, the clouds build and flee without ever pausing to peer down on the carnage below. They want only to move on, continue the passage, give endless chase to the sun, certain they will fail and fall, only to take up the chase again onward into eternity.
These days we collectively mourn those we have sacrificed on the holy altar of our ignorance. There was a time when we limited war to one per generation, but we now wage them in clusters, it being easier to deal with the interminable periods of boredom where we have nothing to do but imagine peace.
He lies on the steam grate under a thin blanket and plastic garbage bags, sleeping soundly lulled by vibrations of a passing car, back to the Ellipse and grand white house, oblivious to footfalls of tourists and joggers. Steam seeps upward through his tattered clothes, he is back in-country, lying at the fringe of the jungle, awash in sounds, neat cast up from furnace earth, cutting through fatigues and the heavy canvas and steel toes of the boots, into skin, to pool on muscles held taut, twitching at the first heard whoop of chopper blades or stirring of branches and flora in still summer air which hangs, a shroud. Sun rises slowly, bathing the obelisk in a faint peach glow, he rolls, crushing the fading, wrinkled photo of three boys lost, from a different world, standing in beer soaked mirth, leaning on rifles. One night, trees oozed forth shadows, black angels, and his hand resting in a pool of blood and viscera with whom he had roamed the bars of Saigon and Bangkok, invincible knights before their armor turned to rust.
When they asked him what did you do during the war he said “I just stood guard.” When they asked him where he said “A station, just a station, like most others, I just stood guard.” When they asked him did you see the trains carrying the bodies crammed into cattle cars he said “I saw many trains, it was just a station, but mostly I looked at the sky, wishing for the sun, but mostly it was gray and there was smoke from the chimneys.” When they asked him why did you wear the lightening bolts he said “I was a ski instructor but I broke my leg so I stood at the station, just a station like most others.” When they asked him did he know of the ovens he said “They made bread which we ate each night when there were no potatoes.” When they asked him about the Jews he said “I knew no Jews; there were none in the town where I stood guard at a station, just a station like most others.” When they asked him what he did after the war he said “I prayed, just prayed for my sins, sins like those of so many others.”