Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
Wilfred Owen, ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’

It Will Kill You

Private Donalson sat in the deep mud, his legs pulled up to his chest, his hands wrapped tightly around his shins. Rain fell down around him, tiny payloads bursting cleansing fire across the battlefield. As Sergeant McNamara walked through the desolation, mud pulled and sucked at his boots. He sat down next to Donalson on the ravaged earth.

“It doesn’t get easier. I won’t tell you that lie. You might feel it less some day,” the older man said. “A little less, maybe.” Donalson sat silent and unmoving. If he cried, his tears were mixed with the rain, hidden on his wet face. McNamara’s face was drawn and weathered and though he was older than Donalson, he was still young. “You lose a piece of yourself with them. With every goddamned one.”

Across the field Private Wells and three French soldiers were pulling the bodies of the dead into a mass grave. “It’s fucking terrible,” McNamara said. “That’s the truth and there’s nothing else to it. It’ll kill you quick or kill you slow. But it will kill you. I’m sorry to say it but that’s the truth.”

Donalson watched as Wells and the Frenchmen dragged Private Leary onto the pile of the dead. He had been Donalson’s bunkmate. “No better time to learn that than now,” said McNamara.

The Same River

Wells sat on an overturned box while Privates Kitchner and Smith sat before him on the ground. They were tossing their cards into a helmet, playing a game of Wells’ invention. He’d lost so many cards from his deck that all pre-existing games had been rendered unplayable.

“Napoo!” Wells and Kitchner shouted. They laughed and Smith frowned. He couldn’t seem to comprehend the ever changing rules of the game.

“You can’t play the jack of hearts there, buddy,” said Wells. “That’ll cost you every time.”

“But I thought that eights were trump so-”

“Come on now, big guy, you gotta be fuggin’ kidding me. You been thinking too hard and now you got yourself all turned around, see?”

Wells shuffled the battered cards while Kitchner fired up another cigarette. Donalson walked past their game and scuffed his shoes in the dirt. “You wanna play?” Kitchner asked. Donalson shook his head. “Suit yourself,” said Kitchner between puffs.

Past the card game, McNamara was discussing tactics with Corporal Gilson. Carle, Isaacs and Mitchell were standing in a loosely formed circle nearby, unsure of what to do with themselves. The new recruits had only just arrived.

At the edge of the camp, Donalson sat down with his back against a yew tree. In front of him the hills rolled away to the south and in the distance he could see the blue vein of a river. He had never learned much geography and didn’t know the river’s name but he liked to look at it. It seemed still from where he sat but he knew that it was moving, always moving. There had been some line about that in school. Donalson struggled to remember it, thinking back past explosions and planes and uniforms to a day that seemed a lifetime ago. You can’t step in the same river twice. That was it. Who said that, he wondered. Shakespeare? It seemed older than Shakespeare. It sure was poetic, though. Donalson made a mental note to look it up once he was back home. He knew he would forget.

Continue reading “1917”

The Highway

It all happened in a moment. I saw a man crouching on the highway, his back pressed against the half-wall of the median, his arms outstretched in front of him, palms outward in token of peace as the cars rushed by him in terrifying wave after terrifying wave. His face was rigid and still, his eyes wide and dark, bottomless apertures. Behind him, the red and blue lights of a squad car flashed brightly in the snowless winter night. A policeman came up on the other side of the median. The crouching man did not look at the policeman, did not seem to notice the flashing lights or the car or the officer. He was alone with his thoughts and maybe his fears, staring out into the flow of traffic. Cars passed at great speeds, never slowing down. So strange that he should be so still in the midst of all that movement.

The officer leaned against the median, down a dozen frozen feet from the crouching man. He peered over the concrete divide. What a thing to see. How did it come to this? How did that man come to that place, so totally alone, so endangered by all those closest to him? I wonder what the crouching man thought with his back against that unforgiving median. I saw his mouth move but I couldn’t hear what he said. His words joined the debris rattling in the wake of sedans and sport utility vehicles, giving shape to the wind.

The officer jumped over the dividing wall. Slowly, he approached. He held his arms out and his hands up, just as the crouching man did. He said something, I think. I couldn’t hear. They were close now, the policeman and the crouching man. Soon they would be close enough. Soon they would touch and then everything would change. Touch changes everything.

Then I was gone. The constant flow of the highway carried me away. I don’t know what became of either of them. How could I? It all happened in a moment.

The Last Road

When it began she was hardly a person at all. Just a soft, mushy, doughy little thing. And so this is the only world she knows. It’s formed her, or at least a part of her. It’s made her tough. Tougher than I am, though she doesn’t know it. Someday, if she’s lucky, she’ll grow old and maybe then she’ll feel like I do. Tired. Worn out. Numb. Not yet, though. She’s too young. Too brave. She doesn’t know any better than to want to keep going. I go on for her and her alone.

It’s been six months since we left home, six months we’ve been walking. The roads are all the same. They come up from the woods and wind through little towns where signs hang off of storefronts, windows are blown out, and power lines are strewn about like lifeless snakes, robbed of their venom. There was a time when a town was a safe place. I can barely remember it. We approach towns carefully, under cover of night, coming in from the woods. Never in the open. Not even under the broad light of day. You don’t know who’s looking out the windows. You don’t know who’s waiting behind the doors.

The highways are safer, though everything’s relative. They’re wide and open and give a good line of sight so you can see who’s coming, sometimes for miles. You can’t walk right on the pavement, of course. You’d only know you were being watched when it was already too late. No, the safety of the highway is off to the side, hidden in the trees but within eyeshot of the broken, flagging concrete. Stay quiet, stay hidden. Show yourself only if you have to. Try to stay safe. But you can’t. Not for long.

So it’s good that she’s tough. Soon she won’t even need me. And that’s good too because I’m already slipping. I didn’t hear the whistling. She did though. It’s a small thing. But small things can mean everything out here.

Continue reading “The Last Road”

The Devil and Jeff

I wake to find the devil sitting near my bed.

“Good morning, Jeff,” he says.

I rub my eyes. I am, obviously, delusional. Phantoms of evil don’t just appear next to your nightstand, ready for an early morning chat. I blink. He’s still there, not some horned, fork tongued little imp with a pointy tail but a shadow made corporeal, the embodiment of the abyss. He sees my confusion and, presumably, my fear. “The classical image of the devil is all wrong,” he tells me, “What most people in Western society picture when they think of the devil – the red skin, the horns, the pitchfork – they’re thinking of the baphomet. Cute little critters, kind of the labradors of the underworld, but not true devils.” He sighs. “It’s not that I’m jealous. I’m really not. There’s more than enough fear to go around – let the little guy have his moments, you know? It’s embarrassing more than anything. How would you feel if someone mistook your dog for you? That’s what it’s like. Recognition, Jeff. Acknowledgement. It’s not just people who care about that stuff.”

I feel ill.

Continue reading “The Devil and Jeff”

A Good Year

The temple priest stood atop a high ridge. Deep blue water flowed down a ravine behind him and poured into the dark of the caves that cut sharply into the crust of the earth. Water, the lifeblood of the valley, flowed through the caves in a cool current, pushing and pulling with the throb of a beating heart.

Spring was coming. Along the shores of the ravine, between sprigs of sharp green grass, little white flowers were opening, their tiny bright faces glowing with radiance in the sunlight. The temple priest stretched out his long, thin arms and reached up, up, ever upward toward the sky. Holding his hands aloft he called out the incantations of his people, the prayers that had guarded the village since before his father’s fathers had donned the cowl and performed the rites themselves.

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In the White City

“Can you run?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, prodding and testing her ankle. She stood up and took a few halting steps, winced and fell back to the ground.

“It’s okay,” he said. Eiko looked around the stone courtyard. Vines trailed over the heavy white slabs and grasses popped up out of cracks in the flooring, but nowhere did he see what he was looking for: a branch, a stick, something that might be used as a cane or crutch. “Come on,” he said. He draped her arm over his shoulder and stood slowly, lifting her up with him. “Let’s go.”

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Deeper Than the Silence

Drums. Pulsing in the background, slow and throbbing. The kind of sound that you feel, the pressure of it coursing through the air, pulling and pushing on your ears and eyes. They are coming.

“Get up.” Williams was already awake. Terns dragged himself to a sit. I kicked Davis in the ribs to get him moving. “We have to go. They’re coming.”

“Are you sure?” asks Davis.

“Of course he’s sure, shit for brains. Get the fuck up.” Williams is a good soldier. We’ve served together for a long time, all the way back to the insurgency. Christ, that was a long time ago. We held up pretty well for a while there. It’s almost over now, though. Almost done.

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The White Leopard

That I cannot speak does not mean that I am silent.  The pumping heartbeat, the hissing intake of breath, the endless creaking of bones – I do not need a voice to be heard.  When I sat, waiting patiently in the blind in the high tree, I did not wait to hear men’s voices – I listened for their footsteps and heard their heartbeats; there is truth in those sounds.  And that is my curse: to hear the truth though none can hear me speak it; I am Cassandra inverted.


Though my speech was stilled, my rifle spoke in a tongue that even the men of Babel could have understood; it was the only voice I had.  When I was young, only a boy, my father gave it to me.  It was a heavy gift, not given without consideration.  “The lead in that barrel carries a great weight,” he said, “do not bear its burden lightly.”  So I trained and learned the trade and, only a boy, became a huntsman.  I spent many nights cradled in the boughs waiting for a doe that might feed my mother and brother and father most of all.  He could not show it, but he loved me, my father did; I know it.  But ours has been no great time for differences.  The horrible quiet of my muted tongue shamed him and drove us far from the Isles and into the white waste – though he did not speak this to me, I heard the truth.  Then the comrade came with his stiff walk and father had to don the gerb or else see fire set to our walls.  I could not follow, I was too young, though – in my silence – they would not have taken me even had I been of age.

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The Pit

I’m only telling you this because I have to.

They say that telling it helps, that dragging the words out from my insides and into the world will give me some clarity.  Or maybe it was lucidity.  Or maybe it was both.  I don’t remember.  But even if I don’t believe them, I suppose I’m in no position to argue.  I can’t always trust what I believe anymore.

Maybe there’s some beauty in that disorder, somewhere.

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Look to the Sky

…and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Acts 2:17


‘Hace mucho tiempo, cuando sueños aún tenía capacidad…’  I remember the words clearly now, but I still don’t know what they mean.”

“Why didn’t you ask Eduardo to translate them for you?”  I asked.

“He wasn’t there yet.”

“Where was he?”

“He was mixing our drinks, but he came back in time to translate the story, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

“Why didn’t you ask him to translate those first few words for you, Frank?”

“Because – look, I already told you, I didn’t remember them.  It was my first night in the village and my Spanish was horrible at best, I just didn’t remember them, alright?”

“But you remember them now?”

“Yes.”  Frank let out a heavy sigh.  His narrow shoulders slumped.  His green eyes glared up at me with frustration out of his worn, reddening face.  “I heard them in my dreams.  Several times.  And I recognized them.  I’ve told you all of this before.  You know this.”

Continue reading “Look to the Sky”