By Nicholas Montes
As I rolled numbly upon what I could faintly make out to be damp and mossy gravel, my ears filled to the brim with choppy vibrations. Little putterations of sound issued from a far off mortar. More than slightly stunned I blinked dazedly at the mist that veiled my surroundings. I spat out the grey earth which encrusted my otherwise parched lips, raising myself up gingerly to rest my weary head on propped up elbows.
The surrounding scenery bled murkily into my worm’s perspective. I was in a field near as I could gather. Four feet ahead and slightly to the right, lay what appeared to be a cracked tortoise shell in a net. Tattered and dented I realized that it was the meshed helmet of a soldier. The battering ram-like sputter quieted abruptly, leaving the solemn place eerily silent. Still too frightened to call out, I rolled over then sat cross-legged in the leaf strewn clearing of the field where I had awoken. My head throbbed like the metal coating of a rung bell. Something attempted to tear free of its bonds and I pinched my eyes shut.
I stood like a tiny talisman, riveted, in the center of the double-wide, the rotting wooden box with wheels where my family lived. My father had been yelling at my mother. But now it was quiet, and he was slumped back in his chair. The bottle, still running over with foam, dangled from his finger-tips. He stirred and his eyes peered out from the branches of greasy hair that hung down over his eyes. “Mijo, come,” he rasped at me. I slouched forward, and came a few steps closer in my moccasins. He beckoned me further and let the bottle slip to the peeling linoleum. I climbed up on his lap and laid my head against his chest, listening for his heartbeat.
I began patting my pockets on the front of the rough green jacket I wore. I searched for some inclination about the paranoia spreading like a fever to my head. Grimy fingers fumbling ineptly at the buttons, I unfastened the cold, coin-shaped metal shakily and reached inside. I pulled out a folded sheet of yellowing paper. I unfolded it, and spread it out, smearing mud across it as my fingers caressed the worn edges. A cartographic image of my surroundings lay before me with small red dots highlighting points of interest.
Squinting intently at the top left corner, I made out my own minute scrawl on the page. ‘I wrote this’, I thought dazedly. What I had written did not further enlighten me. At some time, I had written a numbered chronological list titled “Events.” I scoured the map once more. Each red dot had a smaller number next to it. Scanning more in depth, my thumb came to rest upon a small marshy clearing in the center of a field with a tiny “Event 1” corresponding to a red dot. Trying to remember, I gazed intently into the foreboding fog but could produce nothing insightful.
I dug my mud-caked fingers once more into what I now recognized as a soldier’s uniform, and this time produced a tiny tin compass. Still unsure whether standing would be wise, I crawled, military-style through the muck until the mist cleared to reveal a gurgling stream moving through the swaying cattails. The cattails rattled menacingly from their lookout post high above me as I washed my face and hands. Mopping pond water and perspiration from my brow with a white pocket handkerchief, I squatted on my haunches, shivering.
Using my map and the battered compass, I located and charted a course to the little red dot labeled “Event 2,” which appeared to be a single tree in the middle of a burned-out field. It was surrounded by an enclosure of barbed wire at one mile in length and a half mile in width.
It now felt safe to stand on my own two feet. Straightening up to my full height, I brushed the clumps of earth from the front of my rough canvas trousers. Starting off into the fog, I exhaled deeply. I listened to my boots trudging noisily against the lonely gravel path, as I plodded onward for the better space of an hour. The road of sorts was marked by a ditch and its twin on opposite sides. Down the center of the road, lay the impression of geminous tracks. They gouged deeply into the wet soil like the talons of an enormous bird of prey. It was clear from these ruts that a tank had passed this way. Images passed across my eyes and superimposed on the terrain before me.
Men were yelling. Some were swearing and some were dying. I lay in the ditch, wide eyed. “Geronimo. Hey Geronimo. Can you hear me? You’ve got to move. Keep moving.” The Sergeant’s face was cartoonish and covered in clay. Someone screamed, “Grenade!” I looked to my right and Zanzibar threw himself on top of the grenade. Clay and blood painted my face and uniform and I gaped at the designs on my palms. They were ornate. They were like murals I had seen other boys on the reservation paint on rocks and dumpsters.
The mist parted to my left, revealing a glimpse into the weird. Leaving the heavily beaten path, I stumbled as I struggled down and out of a muddy ditch. My view of the rest of the field was blocked by an enormous mound of dirt and debris which stretched out like a skinned doe before me. I could not remember seeing the mound marked on the map. Nervously I scanned the filthy paper for a sign. Availing nothing, I tossed it disdainfully to the wind.
A strange breeze had set in, breathing little puffs of chill air. It played its fine tendrils across my neck, making the hair stand up against the sweat which braided it there. A foul stench filled my nostrils and offended my senses. Smoke—and something else. What I had taken previously to be a thick shroud of mist blackened the sky in plumes of soot. I stopped before the upheaval of earth and placed my palms against a large flat shard of mortar. I bowed my head, straining to hear what lay on the other side. The only sounds that serenaded the throb drum of my ears were the calling of crows and the thumping of my own heart. The world began reeling, and I collapsed onto the rubble in front of me.
I was lying awake staring up from my rough cot in the barracks. Zanzibar was sleeping peacefully on my left, and Whittaker was snoring loudly to my right. The days were now filled with forced marches and the hollering of officers. Feeling the melodic night air suffocate the warmth from my breath, I rolled over slightly. I pulled a battered photograph from beneath my pillow and stared at the two boys in it. One was wearing a stained hunting cap and an unbuttoned plaid shirt over a skinny tan chest. I gazed at the photo, praying for a change. None came.
I hadn’t come this far to turn back. Un-stowing the empty tortoise shell which had been hiding under my arm, I buckled the straps under my chin. Planting one boot deep into the dirt, I began the climb. Strands of barbed wire and rubble assaulted my fingers as I clawed my way to the top. The last part of the ascent was lipped such that I had to pull myself up by a jutting chunk of wood and then roll sideways onto my back. Coming to a rest, eyes to the grey sky, I cursed the climb. Perspiring profusely from the exertion of my journey, I dangled my feet by the strings that were my legs over the other side and gasped. The scene that played out before me brought bile to my lips. The bodies of the dead lay strewn like bundles of damp laundry. Bathed in blood, lay so many mothers’ children. Memories of past experiences and broken futures lay unburied and silent here.
Wandering through the nightmare I looked into their still-staring eyes. This was a massacre of innocents: a turkey-shoot. Guns and grenades were clutched in their hands or cradled like infants in motionless arms. Again and again, each time with different moments, means and languages, they had struggled for existence and lost out. Each had been defeated by happier, stronger futures and left to rot. The memories danced a melancholy jig within their empty shells. If I could have, I would have paused to take a possession from every one in turn. Embers still glowed beneath the smoke and ashes. They warmed my cold toes as I pressed forward reverentially. To my soul, their dying aspirations stained the water clear. I remembered the blood.
I stood in the woods alone. The rifle dangled limply from my fingertips. There had been yelling and screaming. But it was quiet now. My father lay face down in the glade, his backside peeking out from his trousers. Dark liquid, as shrouding as ink, pooled out in the still waters. I dipped my hat once, then perched it on the back of the crown of his head. His hair was splayed out motionless. I let the rifle slip down to the forest floor. From his coat pocket I pulled the photograph of two boys, and stuffed it roughly into my own.
The mist cleared, and I was suddenly paralyzed by the steely stab of falling snowflakes. I shook uncontrollably and vomited onto the frozen ground. I watched the steaming fluid disappear beneath the white cloth that came casketing over the entire field. In the distance I saw a partially frozen stream oozing forward. It wound its way towards me, and I followed it blindly. The elements were trying to take me. I saw two black figures beyond the stream. “Papa,” I called out desperately. I tramped forward drunkenly, chest throbbing like when my father’s hands would slap against it. He couldn’t hear me, didn’t want to understand. I tripped just as I reached the stream and landed on the other side in the newly fallen shroud of powder.
A great pine stood before me. Sleet slapped me. I raised my head into the shadow of the evergreen which was protecting a stained armchair from the falling snow. My father’s face was gunshot clear. He sat, brown eyes staring down, waiting for me to move. The pine needles were bristling like the fur on the back of a fox. I stood up and looked into his face, covered by the thick black hood of his hair. I sat down beside him and placed one palm, childlike against the hide of the chair. A wailing, wild and strange, filled the air. My father said nothing. I said nothing. The branches of the tree moved with purpose and played the winter winds in mournful howling notes. I stripped the thick coat, the uniform, and the grey shirt from my body and lowered myself face first into the snow beside the tree. I lay there in the perfect grave alone, and let it take me quietly to the glade beside the woods, across the field, before the wooden box, where I was born.
Nicholas Montes is an English Major at Brigham Young University. He is an intern at Future House Publishing. He is not a father. He is not divorced. He is in love with his wife. He works on other peoples’ cars but never his own. He loves to write short story with his trusty tea-tumbling companion. He loves to feed off of the substance of poetry. He has never published anything. He still dreams.