Category Archives: War
There was a little house in the dark. It was charred and on fire.
“What happened,” she said aloud. As if she didn’t know.
Flames had turned the dying window frames to sticks, devouring the seams of the attic, engulfing the scalloped roof tiles. It was all going down. The blackened chips of siding gave way in her hand as she rounded the corner to the front door, smudging her palms.
She mounted the crumbling stairs, felt her way along the dark smoldering hallway and into the center room where he was waiting. The ceiling above him was partly gone now. He settled back calmly into the remains of his burnt chair as if to say, of course. Of course this would happen. Of course the living room would be an inferno. Just his luck.
She looked around the place, trying to get her bearings. Was this his house or hers? Had she set it or had he? Probably her. She always acted like she had thirteen other houses to spare. The kitchen behind him was on fire. The pipes were melting. The momentos were ashes, nothing soft left, no signs of home. Nothing left but hard wood. Just fuel to burn. Fuel made of me, she thought and the excitement rose into her neck. Fuck the house. Her body was shaking with the thrill of seeing him. She consumed his closeness like tinder, like cigarettes, like curtains, and then when all that was gone, she turned on her own four walls. Nothing was enough.
He stood up, long muscled arms at his sides, eyes trained on her like an opponent. He paced the floor around his chair, in no hurry. The wood underfoot was light gray like barnwood.
“Messed up isn’t it,” he said finally, swinging his arms to present the blaze, like ta-da! Then that dry laugh of his, where all the glee had turned black. That I don’t give a damn laugh. That fuck a buncha this shit.
“Yep,” he said, taking in the scene. “This is pretty much what I get.”
It weathered her, the churning, grinding sound of his frustrated laughter. It felt like it was coming from her own guts, washing away pieces of her as it passed through. Since the first kiss, all her wiring had gotten fused with his, and half the time she didn’t know if she was feeling his pain or hers. A flaming rafter collapsed between them, and neither flinched.
“What was I supposed to do?” she said . “You and your silence. Hurt me worse than death.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” he snapped right back. “But what do you do? You done gone apeshit. Keep telling me to leave you. I told you I didn’t want to. What is wrong with you.”
You act like you want to, she wanted to say. But maybe he was right, maybe she was crazy. You don’t care how I feel, she wanted to say, you don’t care about my life. But how could he, when he couldn’t deal with his own. You’re hooked on disaster, she’d tell him, but she’d known that from day one. Known it and lined up for more.
She looked back at him, emptyhanded. Shrinking and rotting inside. Any second her floor would give way.
“I told you I would sacrifice what I wanted to protect you,” he said, each word separated so it would ring like a knife across steel. “You accuse me of bullshit on text? After what I been through, you think I’m gonna let you do that to me again?”
He circled her now, light and sharp, with eyes like a hawk. Sacrifice, she thought. The word had felt so soft when he’d laid it at her feet . Now pointed at her throat it was a very different sort of thing, and she suddenly caught the meaning. He’d throw everything overboard if necessary. He could sever all ties at a moment’s notice. He could snuff out her love in a snap and not think twice. All he needed was a reason, because he traveled hard and light and would not be trapped again. No fucking way.
I’m on your side, she wanted to say, to calm him. She was crying now, because tears were a way of life with him. Her sheets, her phone, her life was dried over with a tide of salt.
It’s just me. Remember me?
But she couldn’t say that because he didn’t remember her. He didn’t know the first thing about her. All he knew was that she’d hit a nerve and it didn’t matter why. Fuck her. And fuck this and fuck you. That’s what mattered.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I made a bad decision. Tell me what to do to make it right.”
She said it because she knew the opposite side of him too. She knew his charms better than anyone, the pieces were strewn everywhere. He’d toss her a handful of sweetness like bullet casings and saunter away, crunching them underfoot. He had no idea that she’d pocketed every word he had no use for, all the glimmering stories he’d ever told, as if later on they could all be glued back together and he’d remember who he was. But he spoke of the pain so much he almost disappeared into it.
“Welcome to my life,” he said, turning his back to face the fiery walls. “Same shit, different year.”
That was his chipped circuitry, shorting out at the same dead end, unable to power a clock, let alone a heart. It was the obtuse handiwork given to him by the iron machinery that’d raised him. Harsh training for a boy whose heart was made for speed and light and laughter.
She drew a step closer, wanting to get right up against his chest so she could anchor him with her wood-gray eyes. The gate inside her was broken too, missing, ripped off just for him. If he would just look down at her for a second he would see that he could reach into them like shallow pools and take whatever he needed. She’d tip back her head with the pleasure of it all because plundering herself was a drug, a quick bypass around reality, straight into the velvety core of what she wished this could be, even as it all went up in smoke before her eyes. That was the thing about her — if she liked you enough she could ignore the facts so hard they almost disappeared.
He can give back someday, she’d tell herself. He can fix the rafters and the beams and himself and everything.
If she could just get him to kiss her, he would melt, he would radiate that tenderness and play the sweet badboy and it would all fit perfectly with the story she wanted. She could forget the rest, she could curl up real low where the smoke wouldn’t cut off the air, and disappear into her dreams about him. Pull a version of him around her body like wool.
He looked down at her and softened, shaking his head. The fire boiled all around, eating the cracks and crevasses.
“What’s it like?” he asked, expressionless.
What’s what like?”
“Walking around being so beautiful all the time. What’s that like.”
But underneath the flattery was his pain. His honest need to know. How had she ended up with such dumb luck while he’d been dragged through the trenches. Where do people get these lives? he’d asked her once, with that unhappy laugh. Like maybe it was a checkout line he’d missed. A ticket he’d accidentally washed in the pocket of his jeans. Maybe that’s why his eyes glazed over whenever she talked. Why he walked out the back door or looked away or changed the subject. He kept her on mute. What right did she have to say shit anyway.
But she’d clung to his back for dear life anyway, hooked on the weathered rock of his body, the permanent fighting stance, the rhythmic cadence of his voice. Maybe she was just like the monkey in a lab cage, refusing food and water, clinging instead to the stuffed replica of another monkey. A false thing could keep you alive, so long as it felt like the real thing. So long as you overlooked the details.
He can never love you back. That was what the fear whispered when it crept in. It was there when It was in the way he’d dropped her off and rushed her bags inside. It was in the songs he’d played on the way home. Songs about the past. Songs about the pain.
He doesn’t have anything left to give you.
Bullshit. She could cook, couldn’t she? She could listen, she could shore up his supplies. She could peel off her clothes and coax his attention back to a full color spectrum. That look on his face while she watched him shower, my god it had seared her. He’d been hard as an arrow, hadn’t he? Looked and smelled so good as he dried off and shaved. He’d ripped off her shirt and fucked her by the sink hadn’t he. Grabbed her soft swollen tits with his rough hand, one palm steadying her face as he kissed her harder and harder and then just barely grazed her lips. We’ve got all afternoon, he whispered against her jaw, and lightning struck right outside. That wasn’t nothing, was it? The sizzling rain, the scorch drifting in through the open window, was that the moment the end began? She was so high on his tongue, on the way his eyes furrowed with longing while she rode him, killed him dead with every thrust. Oh the relief when he did it back. That pleasure, that can’t get enough, that was love, wasn’t it? What about the good morning sugar. What about her sink full of clean dishes. What about the, you better not hurt me. He’d said that hadn’t he.
Can a person be addicted to pain? She texted her girlfriend late at night, crying again. Does that make any sense?
Maybe for the attention, came the answer. Maybe they don’t think they deserve better.
He’s the former, she wrote back, uselessly. Am I the latter?
Her mind obsessed on him in fruitless circles. But what the fuck did it matter if she’d lost her grip. All she wanted to do was lay with him now amid these crackling walls, basking in the orange glow as they slowly burned down. Her drowsy lips were wet against his chest. She’d ask about it again. Tell me how how she broke you. Tell me how everything got so bad.
“Can’t never get away from it,” he’d despair, stretching each syllable across her like piano wire. And he’d tell her the story again, his voice low and rhythmic. Each detail crisp, each line spoken precisely as it had been said ten years before, each ending worse than the one before. She could listen to him talk til the sun came up and still it wouldn’t fix anything. Every molecule of air on earth could be dedicated to it, every ounce of sleep incinerated, and still nothing would fall into place. The telling left him empty and dilated, even as she stockpiled her chest with the traumas, busting at her own seams with adoration and jealousy and interest and still empty as hell deep inside.
“Let’s go outside,” she said finally, leading him.
The house was done. It couldn’t stay anymore. He followed her down over the blackened planks, outside where the night air sparkled with crickets and cold. She looked back at the blaze, imagining the whole thing sliding off its foundation and vanishing backwards over a cliff. All that would be left was an outline of ashes.
Or maybe she could push the rubble over just a hundred feet or so, just to be near it but not in it. She could put up something else in its place: some placid, dull, lacey-curtained kitchen where she could sit at her silent table by herself, beside an unbroken window , and finally stop weeping over him. But she knew what waited. Her ears would still perk for every engine that drove by, waiting for the one that would sound just like his, the one that would purr slowly into her drive. Her delusions would bloom in the night, laying naked in her empty bed, reliving his smile, wanting his body like a half-dose of morphine, writhing instead against a rigidly cheerful, plastic replacement. She’d sit up in the darkness, certain that shadow was him. Was it him? Had he come for her finally? And then she’d realize. And check her phone again. And turn over in the dark, sick from withdrawal.
If she could have him just once more. Just one more time it would stop hurting.
He’ll just punish you again, and next time? It’ll be worse.
“It’s all got to go,” she said out loud. One of his eyes was shadow, the other embers, just like the chambers of his heart. She seized the fabric of his shirt in her fist, pulling his chest toward hers. This hold he had on her. This fixated desire. These stupid ruined houses, her head full of phantoms. Everything had to go. She’d sleep on the wet ground if she had to. Anything to not be tattered and on fire.
But instead, she stood there clutching his shirt, her feet heavy as iron.
“Well okay then,” he dared, stepping free of her grip. “Go.”
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016
From time to time, I wake in my bed after visiting someone else’s life, in a place so real you could touch it. I stumble through a doorway and find people I know and love, only I forgot that I’d forgotten them. It is a vision that beckons, shimmers, then slams the door in my face.
As my bedroom comes back into focus, I have this sense of being stretched like a strand of hot glass, suspended between two dimensions. For a languid moment, the streets in this other world are more real than the ones I live on now. Their names are on the tip of my tongue, the contours of the hills in the distance are so familiar I must have walked them my whole life. There is a person there, waiting. But the connection cools and snaps, and the faces freeze and vanish.
These places are not always easy to visit. Even when the scenery is bucolic, there is almost always an undertone of war. Most times, the only way I can escape is by accepting my own death. Sometimes death doesn’t come as needed, and I have to put a gun to my head. Sometimes I wake with relief, sometimes loss, but always with the ache of loneliness that comes with amnesia, with questions that are not meant to be answered.
Last night I visited Europe during the occupation. I guess. I don’t have the words for where I was. I wore a long skirt, with an old gun hidden in my coat.
My life was all about my people. I had people. I don’t know what the hell that means because I have nothing like that in this life, I have no people. But there I was surrounded by brothers, cousins, extended family all around. Our hair was dark, our skin was white, the men wore undershirts and dark pants all the same shade of beige, gray, black. I walked through the dim city streets, grit crackling under my boots, sooty fire escapes overhead, fear in my heart. Still, I wanted to fight, like an alley cat that bristles and hisses before the miscreants stone it to death. I wanted to fight because it was my in my blood, and because pride helped obscure the reality of my inevitable doom.
My boys, my young men who were as close as brothers, all around me. We whispered as we passed each other.
Tonight, I said.
Tonight, they nodded back, as if our every move was being watched.
There was this calculated façade of calm, as if we all knew what was coming: a chance.
We collected in the street as if for some harmless family gathering, sitting at makeshift benches to eat and talk. There were at least a hundred of us, and we didn’t want to raise suspicion. Our small cache of artillery was hidden. The air was prickling, men with urgency in their dark eyes.
This street where we sat was an alley between two factory buildings, and at each end was a tall iron fence. To protect us, perhaps, or confine us.
Three lanky teenage boys wearing coats that were too small, stood at one end of the alley. They were dark-skinned with smooth black hair. Their nationality was different. They had rifles strapped on their backs, as if they were keeping watch on our behalf. They were friends of my son. A friendship, I suspected, that was ill-advised. I knew they would betray us, or we would betray them. I wouldn’t let my son go to them, and this upset him. But there was no time to sort it out. My son was lost in the crowd as it scattered. Someone was coming. Something had gone wrong.
The fight was breaking out too soon. This was not as planned. Our men had been spooked. For a moment everything paused, like the silence before a falling glass shatters on the concrete, and then a single shout splintered the street into chaos. Gunfire pulverized the brick over my head. We were discovered. Now the enemy would close in from both sides and kill us all. All was lost, and so quickly. I ducked for cover in one of the buildings, doom and grief in my heart. I knew, I knew there was no way out of this. Nowhere to go. In here, the booming gunfire was muffled, but soon they would hunt me down. Death was coming for me, breathing down my shoulder, how would I meet it?
Down one of the corridors stood a beautiful woman, sheltering some children. I knew her. In a world of sepia-toned shadows, her face glowed brilliantly with calm and sweetness. She had long curly hair down to her shoulders.
Stay and fight, she implored me. Face the enemy and remember our cause.
But I was panicked to my core, I didn’t care about our cause, I wanted only to stay alive, to find a place to hide, to escape.
They’re coming! I hissed at her, climbing up to a bank of windows that lead to the roof. I rammed my shoulder into the glass, breaking a few panes, stumbling out into the air above the crossfire. The city around me was engulfed in flames. I turned to my right, but the beautiful woman had followed. She was beside me.
Stop, she warned me, holding up her hand. She had seen something. A thick gunshot rang out from across the street, and a shell rocketed toward her in slow motion, leaving behind a trail of fire as it landed in her body, embedding in her coat, knocking her off the roof. I covered my eyes but I had already heard it, the soft thud that snuffed out her life. The sucking sound of her dying breath roared in my ears, louder than the deafening artillery fire, filling me with dread and sickness.
Just like that, she was gone.
A soldier was coming through the window behind me. I fell down to play dead, but it was too late. Before I could surrender to him, I remembered I could escape. I placed my hidden gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
I’ve done this in dreams a dozen times before.
First comes the loss of breath, then the darkness, the wrenching away, then the blissful fall through the escape hatch, back into my room. And then there is light.
In the distance, no gunfire, just the steady hum of a leaf blower. I lay there blinking in the sunlight, breathless.
When I die, will this life become as distant to me as that one, just some passing, transient dream? Will I doubt I was even here, the same way I doubt if I was there?
I guess it doesn’t matter. Life on earth is fucking barbaric. Centuries of war, suffering, murder, loss– it’s in our blood, the DNA of every cell. Maybe I have a frayed strand in my heart that wicks up these memories, and when I wake it casts a little flicker, and in that brief moment before the darkness recedes, I can hold vigil between two worlds, remembering enough for everyone. Or maybe for no one.
Maybe just for me.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
When I was alone, without kids, I had a lot of time to float around. But I longed to be weighted down. I longed for a cast iron center to my life, something strong and smelted from pain. I remember asking around about the military life, wondering if f could hack basic training, l imagined mud and cold and mean girls much bigger and tougher-minded than I would ever be. I visited one recruiter. I was scared of getting hurt.
I took to hoarding war paraphernalia, war movies, box sets of World War II newsreels, newspaper clippings on Vietnam. I watched them alone in my apartment before my waitress shift at a bar in downtown Atlanta, and when I came home sometime before dawn, unable to sleep, I would open up my papers, lay them on the floor and study them. I was searching for a soldier, for that frame where he flashes through the grainy black and white, no longer one dimensional but full-blooded and in color, someone you know, no different from the guy playing Frisbee down at the park at this very moment. I rewind and pause, rewind and pause, wondering who were you, did you die, what was it like, where is your body?
The bodies, the youth in those bodies. Those blackened hands braced around artillery were hands that once entwined another’s, those strong backs and rumps a mother had aged her hands patting and spanking, those squinting eyes were memorized by a lover somewhere, forever smiling back in a picture flame beside a bed. Each shadowy speck staggering in the distance was somebody’s jewel. Swallowed up in the darkness, they vanished. For every young man who dies with his blood and limbs blown about like litter, thousands of miles from home, there is also a woman who is sitting at home on the porch on a beautiful sunny afternoon, frozen in agony. She can never trade her own limbs in, can never be there to pick up the pieces, the slaughter of sinew and helmet laced with fragments of brain that were knitted together in her womb, that contain the only copy of their shared memories. The strong limbs that she nourished are now broken, splintered, and unreachable except in the darkest snapshots of her imagination. Is there a deeper hell? I can’t name it.
I had a photo of an American Marine in Vietnam, clutching his rifle, holed up in a mission church that was surrounded by Viet Cong. He is dirty, handsome, both tired and full of adrenaline, not looking at the camera but right through it. The caption mentions that he and the other soldiers had spent that long night plunging back out into the darkness, under fire, to collect the dead and wounded from the grounds outside the church, dragging them back in, getting shot, dying. Back in America, the throngs of Americans screaming and chanting with their bright banners and disheveled clothes, filling a city street at noon. I’d probably be there too, if I’d lived then, I’d be marching with my fist in the air. But I always notice the greenness of the trees in the background, and then the fact that they’re not being shot at, and it renders them, me, all of us – ridiculous. Of course we’re not ridiculous. It is not ridiculous to want peace. But what do I do with the haggard misery of the boy in the church, or the mother and father who endure the murder and burial of their child. I feel ashamed of their innocence, then my own. And decide maybe I would’ve been a soldier.
The first time I saw an image of a POW was during the first Gulf War. The local paper printed their four snapshots as they had been seen on TV, bruised, cut up, frightened. I tore out the pictures and taped them to my wall where I could see them from my bed. At night I would weep over them, dramatically beg God to bring them home. I was just a stupid kid, but I loved them. I needed to tend to their fragility, carry their seed of horror with me. What was it like to sit helpless and bound by the enemy? Today would they drag you out and shoot you, would it be quick, would they torture you, could you handle it? And at home, his wife’s fears are suffocating, violent. She is in America, surrounded by strip malls, landscaping and yellow school buses, but she is vanishing, she is looking right through you, staring down a barrel with him . Is he still alive? Is he dying right now? What are they doing to him while I cannot help him? An outsider, I watched and shuddered.
PEOPLE I RESPECT are going to peace marches. I don’t admit it, but I’d never go to one. I don’t want anyone confusing my particular brand of disgust with disgust for those soldiers, whom I love with a loyalty that is dead serious and personal. They are always my men, my children. As our new war unfolded with all the pageantry of the Christmas shopping season, here were new seeds of horror, more POWs, which I regarded from my breakfast table like one might a call from the doctor: I’m sorry to inform you, the disease is back. Inside you are breaking, but somehow you knew this was going to happen again, didn’t you? It was only remission.
Like bookends to the day are news stories of more men lost, this one was a devoted family man who leaves behind a 7-week old son, here is the picture of his newborn for you to ponder, and here is another, leaving four kids and a wife. Here is a 30-year-old soldier, speaking her name into the camera while the whites of her eyes flash and roll at the gunman we cannot see. Here is a building full of 200 enemy combatants, now you see it, now it’s just a fireball, but the Iraqis burning alive inside the crumbling floors have no news coverage to rival 9/11, just a hazy rather colorless satellite photo for our comfort and viewing enjoyment.
As I watch I wonder, who chose the Font for the “War with Iraq” logo? What sort of style do you look for when designing a title for war? And what does it mean, these flag-colored bumper stickers, United We Stand? Back here on the home front, war gives rise to more opinions than floaters in a dead pond, and if everyone is as right as they think they are, what exactly are we united on? Soldiers suck it up, follow orders and get killed. But if I put little flags on my car windows like we’re headed to the Saturday football game, does this make it all better? United we stand. I thought I loved this country, too, but I am too horrified to stand. I am that 22-year-old mother, clutching a baby who wears the smile of a man I will never see alive again. My lover will never walk back through that front door, and I could
not even so much as hold his hand as his blood emptied into the sand. The relatives will stay with me for a little while, but what then? Little baby, you and I are alone, alone, alone.
I SEE OUR COMMANDER IN CHIEF talking and I am paralyzed with embarrassment. This spokesman for the American way of life, ambassador to all nations of the world, with his incredible edible Texas schtick. If he could form at least one unscripted sentence that had any depth to it, it wouldn’t hurt so much. Somebody gives the man five or six one-liners to memorize, which he repeats in different sequences until it becomes obvious he isn’t really listening, and then the question-answer session is cut short, God bless America. The menu at Shoney’s Bar-B-Q has more original thought to it, and at least you know what the hell you’re getting.
I sometimes wonder what goes on in his mind as he rides on his aptly-named Bushhogger back at the ranch, in the heat with the loud motor roaring and the grass flying, where does his heart settle when no one else is around? What if he doesn’t have one, what if he’s just a clone, a sack of impulses and a pulse. His handlers stand like gods against official blue curtains, snapping at the questions for him, steely and powerful. There are little flag pins on the lapel of their dark, designer suits. They make war. They love Jesus. They remind me of robots.
It is much more soothing to watch the average guys in their desert uniforms, dusty, familiar, maybe a genuine smile for the camera as he gets out of the Humvee. He is the brother of your best friend from high school and his wife is sitting at the kitchen table somewhere in Virginia or Connecticut or California trying to balance the checkbook, the kids screaming from the swing set. He has already taken fire. In a quiet moment, he wonders what the hell he’s gotten himself into. He dreams of home. But he endures for reasons that have nothing to do with the script, with the empty speeches. He endures for the warm, shady spot by the coast where he took her on the honeymoon, for the view from the top of the overlook that he used to climb by the old farm, for the smoke-filled dive downtown, for the holy space where the light comes through the window on his sleeping baby. He has no power, no fame and another dismal checkpoint ahead, but he has some honor. He is somebody’s jewel, he is my cast iron center, my lover, my loved one. I cradle his image with my eyes, hoping for him, but they break for commercial, and he vanishes.
copyright © Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
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