CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Father’s Tale
The world was once pure: animals tilted their perfectly formed heads to listen to the workings of the great clock, the sky-blue waters churning over the sunlit rocks. All was well. Then a twig snapped. Something was coming. It was I. I was traveling in my characteristic way: lumbering, unstoppable, crashing through the fragile woods.
We had been on patrol all summer without encountering any sign of the enemy, much less the Enemy himself, and I had come almost to enjoy our missions along the Upper Ridge, from which we had command of the entire countryside, the broad black harbor fading into open sea at one end and contracting into the fat vein of the city port at the other. We marched in silence. I wandered among my own thoughts. I was thinking about the gloomy lane of old poplars that lead to my grandfather’s house, the rusted iron pots that hung ominously from the ceiling—my senses took note of the contrasting lightness of our combat-issue tin cups, the clatter of them bouncing on our packs as we trudged along the ridge without stealth (another memory rescued by association!). If Ben has a son of his own one day, I’ll take my turn at playing the wild-haired old man living in a shack outside the city, obsessing over the Enemy, hoarding food against the Enemy, sorting bullet casings in the pitch black of cabin night, waiting for the Enemy to come at last, just as my own grandfather did.
The river slogged far below us and out toward sea. To think that I had spent most of my life in the city gazing across the water to this very spot, contemplating the silhouettes of these major and then-distant trees: the tall pine shadows planted in ruthless lines long ago by the settlers—those mysterious beloveds, those incomparable villains. Who were they, who were they?
“Ah, who are you talking to?” someone called out.
“No one,” I answered immediately.
“You looked like you were talking to someone,” said my fellow soldier, smirking.
“Just thinking,” I said. “You should try it sometime.”
We lashed things more tightly to our packs and marched on—I went back to the life-saving slog of remembering. My father brought his father to our house every Sunday for dinner. My grandfather swore that his wife, my grandmother, whom he had always disdained as a “deep thinker,” had chosen to retire early to the Sheds. My mother regarded him coldly, politely, as he spun his lies; she kept his glass full of the rancid gum liquor he loved, and he was soon fumigating my face with his tirades against the Enemy, whose men were “as lithe as cats” and whose women were “as brawny as men.” He leered at me, listing in his chair: “Now, listen. This is serious. There you are—finger on the trigger—facing the Enemy. But, wait—what are you going to do? ’Cause, is it a man or a woman? What do you think?” I would stare silently into the food on my plate, brace myself for what the old menace would forge next in the furnace of his rotten mouth, into which he loved to shove the hot plum and cream my mother brought to him. “And, see, that’s just it—why are you thinking? Don’t think, Son. Just shoot it.” I touched the handle of my knife, intending to kill him with it when I was bigger and stronger. He had once shown me a stash of the Old Money, which he kept under the floorboards his cabin. “Just in case,” he said and clamped his hand over my mouth. I could feel his callous palm against my lips, smell the pipe tobacco and old-fashioned soap on his fingers: “Keep our secret”—and I had. What a marvel … the massive pull of the continuity of civilized life.
The trail dipped lower into the dangerous valley; instinctively, I softened my footfall. All the native creatures of my brain (hopes, dreams, worries, expectations) crouched like hunted animals at the edge of a clearing. We marched in silence, listened.
Autumn came: the ground turned soft and gold in the sunlight; the trees were beautifully black and skeletal in the cold rain. Around a damp, smoky campfire, we helped each other to picture life in the city. Soldiers longed for holiday cake, for the spectacle of Independence Day, now, by our reckoning, under way. They made lewd wagers about the quality and quantity of young women still at large in the city.
But the longer I spent in the Enemy’s Territory, the more I preferred to be alone, to sit quietly among the trees, awed by the beauty of the copper-black twigs against the powder-blue sky. At first, I attacked these unacceptable feelings with logic: the Enemy was trying to get a foothold in my thoughts. I reminded myself daily how much I detested his filthy customs, his sneaky nature, his simple-minded, worshipful attitude toward the trees, toward the animals of the world, an attitude that grants the unthinking routines of beasts something of a human characteristic. I reminded myself that the Enemy would love nothing more than to kick in the door of my family’s house and to murder us one by one, to shove aside our butchered bodies and take down the dinner plates, throw the cutlery into a heap on the table, raid our cupboards, tell his blood-weaned sons a long black lie about how my land and my city and my house had come to be theirs, the house they had stolen, the house in which they were now taking their ease and telling their tall tales, until the true story of my life was replaced by the Enemy’s. My wife, our son, our life, our joys and sorrows … all of it forgotten, forever.
I hated the violence an enemy necessitated in my heart, when I felt that we were a people devoted to other people, to family life. When I opened my pack, I sometimes feared I would find my wife’s head, sawed crudely from her body by the Enemy and snuck into my possession, as a way of destroying my mind. Or I feared I would stumble upon the body of my son, impaled on a broken branch along the ridge, or that I would wake to find that all of my fellow soldiers had been quietly knifed in their sleep.
I had always been able to summon scenes of incredible brutality effortlessly, and though I attributed these scenes to the Enemy, it struck me now that these scenes were entirely mine. In my daydreams, the Enemy thirsted for my blood, sacrificed his brothers, his sisters, his own children, in gruesome and ruthless military tactics—the unbelievable bloodlust of an enemy I had never seen. And an unseen enemy the mind must construct entirely from itself, from the raw material of its own desires and fantasies. I frightened myself.
Winter came. The earth was a white and flawless sheet, the muddy, rutted ground we had patrolled and patrolled suddenly pure, as if never trod upon. It was beautiful. I wandered into the immediate woods to be alone. I propped my rifle in the snow and sat upon an ice-cold rock to rest. The woods were still, bright, and silent—my mind wandered; like a man suddenly unchained from the wall of a prison yard, my mind set out full of life and hope in the direction of its own concerns. I sighed heavily in the winter air, watched the mist of my breath travel. Bright red berries thrived on the black limbs of the snow-capped trees. I tilted my head back to take in the startling heights of the evergreens.
Then I heard the devastating crunch of one of my fellow soldiers approaching. My stomach tightened; I was sick again. I lay my head against my knees in defeat, pretending to sleep: dutifully I chained my mind back to the prison-yard wall. I was sorry to do it, to be forever playing the villain in my own brain. I raised my head and nodded grimly at my friend. “Saw you wander off alone,” he said kindly. “Thought I’d come over.
“This reminds me,” he said settling down on a nearby rock, “of the story of the two brothers who went out to Crippler’s Field to hunt.” I confess I was stunned. He must worry that I’m seriously adrift of our mission, I thought, if he’s hauling out this old corrective.
I kicked my boot heel against the rock and knocked free the pressed tread of snow. He said, “Do you know Crippler’s Field—it’s about an hour’s walk from the train station, just beyond the city limit? It’s where the good hunter died at the hands of his very own brother… .” I nodded. He went on. Somewhere in the city was my dissatisfied little Ben, wishing powerfully for sweets, for me—a boy presumably afflicted by that mix of the wishful and the indifferent so characteristic of the young.
One evening, we were crowded around a low fire on the overhunted ridge. In the cold silence of the wintry woods, we were telling each familiar tales to pass the time. A light snow was coming down. Men who had families talked about their children. I sometimes talked about Ben in an obligatory way. “He’s a good boy,” I’d say in a voice that had become so dead and dispiriting I was amazed it passed muster with the other men. In truth, if I thought of my son that winter, I tended to remember him as a lazy, greedy animal who ate and slept, then attacked me suddenly with questions: “What does it do, where does it come from, why is it crying, will it fit in my room?”
Of course I used to attack my own father in just the same way. There’s a friendly pain that halts self-investigation—but it’s only a matter of time before we discover that we can plumb the depths of one another and easily forget that pain in others. When my father came home from the war, he made a show of picking up his old pleasures to reassure us, but I could see that he was a changed and damaged man, and when other ideas got the better of him, he simply walked off to be alone until he could master his feelings. I trailed at a distance, tracking him through the woods. I considered that Ben might someday hunt me in the same way, catching my shadow moving among the trees, forever trying to please me, to see me, to keep me. I felt I would do almost anything to stop him from following me through life—
We heard an alien sound—the animal-expert footfall of an Enemy soldier moving through the ice-glazed darkness beyond our campfire. We stopped talking. We heaped the fire with snow, and we fanned out into the forest. My blood was pounding in my ears as I crept across the eerie luminescence of the snowfield alone.
From the dark ridge, I aimed my rifle into the woods—a cavern of tar-black air even in the moonlit night. Then I spotted them—my enemies crouched among the trees; I watched the white fog of breath leave the black silhouettes of their heads. God, why wouldn’t they just leave us alone, let us live in peace? I could hear the boots of my commanding officer crunching stealthily through the snow, closer and closer. I knew what he would make me do. I decided to run. I hurried, unseen, down from the ridge and crept along the trampled path. I wanted to be left alone, and to leave others alone. All night I tried to make my way down the other side of the dark ridge, toward the water. I had noticed a ship anchored offshore that morning. Ours? Theirs? Something else entirely? I hardly cared—so long as I could be anywhere else, do anything else.
I woke the next morning in a cave of pines, feeling sick: I was a deserter, a coward. What if the Enemy had bided his time then slaughtered my fellow soldiers in their sleep, because I had not named him, not called him out? I had fled from the faintest suggestion of the Enemy—his black silhouette, his white phantom breath.
I climbed back up the steep slope of the ridge to survey my position. I found the harbor and could see more clearly the mysterious ship upon which I had pinned all my hopes—burned out and sunk in the rocky shallows.
A branch snapped. I spun around, terrified, and aimed my rifle into the trees, but I soon saw that it was only a wild horse regarding me coldly from between the snowy pines of the ridge. I lowered my gun. As if carved from gray ice, as if made of stone and dusted in snow, a ghost horse with black eyes. The horse and I stared at one another, both stock-still. I was thinking only of myself, of my broken heart. I could have regarded this unlikely creature either as a messenger of good tidings or as my enemy, and I felt sorry for myself, because I had thought of him immediately and deeply as an enemy of mine.
I said, “Fine! You win,” and I threw my camp knife, and it landed near the roots of a pine tree; and I threw my rifle, and it sank into the deep snow. Then I longed for the thin illusion of life that I had always taken to be Life to be displaced by the brutal, enormous, beautiful certainty of something greater, even if I were destroyed in the process. I waited. Nothing happened. The horse sighed, scraped at the snow with his pitch-black hoof.
There was nothing to do now but return to what I had always known and hope that what I had always known had survived the night.
I trudged along the ridge until I reached camp—I whistled a much-loved bit of triumphal music along the way; I displayed my empty hands high overhead lest I be shot by the boy from Crippler’s Field or any of the other boys.
“I saw a horse,” I told the commanding officer as I warmed up later beside the low fire crackling in the gray light of the afternoon.
“That’s it? That’s all you saw?”
“But how did you lose your rifle?”
“I fell,” I said, “down an embankment. I couldn’t find it again in the snow.”
“You’re lucky to be alive. Where’s your camp knife?”
I looked searchingly around the camp. “It’s here somewhere,” I said and shrugged.
The commanding officer studied me. “Are you all right, Son?”
“Just cold,” I said.
“Buddy, give him your pistol.”
Buddy gave me an assessing look—who was I, and why was he required to pay for the stupidity of others? He growled at me under his breath and slapped the pistol into my open palm.
Thanks to me, the Enemy was still at large in the woods, and now I had only Buddy’s pistol with which to defend myself. Every waking hour, I waited for the Enemy whom I had spared to slaughter us. I waited for him day and night. During long, silent, defensive dig-ins behind the line of pines that spring, I listened more intently than I ever had. I listened to the sounds of spring: the crackling thaw of creeks, the rush of water, the new breeze through the trees, the thrum of insects, the wingbeats and calls of the red-throated birds. I tried to listen harder, better: though these were the sounds of spring, I feared that hidden among them was the sound of the Enemy advancing, expertly cloaking his footfall in the sounds of the world.
Summer came. The ground was sun-baked hard beneath our boots, the hornets drifted peevishly between the pines. I was resting in the ovenlike shade of a tent, watching the shadows of the trees shift along the taut canvas. A trapped moth bumped against the pale interior of the tent, hitting the end, I thought, hitting the end of all he’d ever know.
A fellow soldier had tried to buck me up, admonished me to remember my wife and my son. I pictured Ben, the question-generating machinery of youth whirring endlessly in his sweet, soft head, and I thought of my wife, how she could close my eyes and hold my head against her chest, and I could hear her heart, tump, tump, and all was well and, yet, still our little camp was a plague of mud, snakes, hornets. I no longer cared if the Enemy found us, if he hacked away at me with a dull hatchet and made a woodpile of my limbs, sliced me to ribbons under the bright seal of the noonday sun. Let him. I wouldn’t raise a hand against him. He was my Enemy only because someone had forced me to grow up beside him in hatred, and now we were as close as brothers, and it was already too late. I was cursed with an Enemy in life, and he was cursed with me. We would never know peace together or away from one another.
“Move, soldier,” seethed my commanding officer. “On your feet!” He was standing in the mouth of the tent. The wind picked up. I watched the shadow-needles of the ghostly pines rising and falling across the sun-bleached canvas overhead. I was in the bow of the ghost ship safely crossing the open sea … the waves were kicking at me, kicking at me.
Finally our tour of duty was up. The Enemy had never shown himself, never attacked, never so much as left his tracks. We were sailing down the great river in the middle of the night, huddled together against the fresh chill in the air. “Soon you’ll see your boy, Ben!” shouted a fellow soldier. The other men were jubilant, relaxed, but I was the prisoner of a lunatic thought: what if the Enemy had stowed away in my brain, where he would lie low until I was back in the heart of my life, my city, my home, my little Ben nested deep in his covers?
We had marched at full tilt day and night to make it home in time for Independence Day, but I parted company with the other men by the old prison. “I want to visit my mother first,” I said, yanking my collar and nodding grimly toward the train station and the Sheds. It was simply the first thing that came to mind—I knew I couldn’t go home. I took an old postcard from my pack and wrote a quick note to my wife. I handed it to a fellow soldier whose house was near mine. “Do you mind?” I asked. “I don’t want her to worry when I don’t come home right away.” I could hear the distant pops of hammers falling, the asthmatic hewing of the broad saws through the long planks, the shouts of men. The intolerable sounds of Independence Day.
I walked away from my bewildered brothers, out toward open country, and I thought of my mother. When one thinks of the Sheds (and, really, how many of us go out to see them for ourselves?), one thinks of the bookroom quiet, the dusky light, the “solemn hush of the countryside”—by which one means: the beautiful stoicism of women. To the very end, our mothers accompanied by birdsong and the sounds of trains and the endearing swarms of dust motes that visit them in the afternoons, when the sun cracks through the spaces between the boards and deepens the silence with light. But I preferred to think of my mother fighting for her life. I wanted her to kick at the chained doors and curse and scream and punch wildly at the boarded windows, the way young women do (or are expected to), when they refuse to marry, refuse to choose, and are entombed in the Sheds in the full bloom of youth.
I turned back toward the river and walked farther and farther out, until I had plunged back into the wilderness. I was immediately afraid. Alone in the cold woods, while my wife and son sat beside the crackling hearth and waited for the telltale sound of my boots on the front walk. I pictured Ben racing to the window and back again, at the mercy of his happy little body, a doomed little animal, all heart and appetite. But I walked deeper into the dark pinewoods, the tumultuous sea of leaves, the green-choked alleys of the creek beds. The fangs of the underbrush—it knows me, it has me, it’s in me. Or my thoughts have fanged the underbrush, invented this dark green villainy. I tried to settle my mind—I knew that when I was unhappy in this way, all of life was an armory, a hall of weapons I polished with my thoughts.
Before long, the old dreaded project dangled in my brain. The villainous, mutineering hand of the mind had begun to turn its own crank. Where was this terrible volition originating (in my brain—where else)? Where is this terrible volition originating? A voice harangued me, followed me through the woods—I struggled to anchor it, with reason, to the center of my brain. Where do you think you’re going? the voice sneered. The stalwart trees watched me indifferently.
“What are you doing?” I managed to ask myself aloud. But my thoughts were already re-forming the designations: the hanging vines were hangmen, the heaped leaves were pyres. I had the terrible feeling of wrongheaded lucidity that had dogged me since boyhood. I remembered suddenly that I had thrown my knife in the woods months before—I had wanted nothing more to do with it. Now, I was determined to retrace my steps to it. I knew that I was something the universe would have to correct if it was to redeem itself in the eyes of others. I reassured myself that I was a better husband and father for limiting the liability of my wife and my son, for sparing them the elaborate negotiations in which the universe and I were now embroiled. The woods grew colder and darker, until I had to crawl on my hands and knees to feel my way.
Look at this new kind of creature crawling on the earth. The hateful voice followed me through the woods. I was listening attentively, crawling through the darkness, trying to feel my way along a steep, rocky embankment. Saw you ALONE, said the voice. Thought I’d come OVER.
I woke the next morning deep in the woods—I was hopelessly lost, exhausted. I stared overhead, through the layers and layers of indifferent and alien leaves, beyond which the sky was pale and bright. I thought of the sameness of the leaves in the city, how abundant but ordinary leaves represent a profusion of Life, but perhaps one not worth living. I was a mere man, but I could add to the beauty of the world. I slid down the embankment to the river’s edge. The soft green shapes of the algae-carpeted rocks were above the waterline and drying in the sun; the pink and gray granites, house-sized boulders of rock veined with quartz, looked in the autumnal light like tombs of silver and gold. I stood at the water’s edge and looked to the opposite shore. Wheresoever the Enemy goes, we must follow.
Julia Holmes was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and grew up in the Middle East, Texas, and New York, where she is currently an assistant editor at Rolling Stone. Meeks, her first novel, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in July 2010.