“Soldiers keep on warrin’,
World keep on turnin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long…”
— Stevie Wonder, Higher Ground
Rain had fallen heavy for three days as I walked the edge of a line between two counties. It had been a year since I had seen or felt rain, and it was overzealous in wanting to remind me what it was like; what it was like for the angels to cry again. The rain had been warm, coming with a warm front, and once it had stopped the chill retook the air. The fog was dense. I had not seen fog in a long time, either, though I still felt like I was walking through the fog of war. It rose like dust after an IED explosion; drifting as slowly and carelessly as ghosts no longer concerned with the world through which they wandered. Thunder boomed at a distance, like RPGs exploding along the horizon. The ground was soggy and slick like blood-muddied sand beneath my boots. The moon, like the rain, came and went as it pleased in that darkly cloaked night.
The two counties were divided by a river. I walked parallel with the flow, following its distended flanks and giving it plenty of space to lounge however it pleased. It was swollen with rainfall and had driven herds of deer to higher ground. I saw many whitetails in groups of five and seven and even ten. There were several does, and many more fawns, but I saw only one buck—a pitiful-looking six-pointer who hadn’t even earned himself any scars yet. He watched the does like a middleschooler at the Christmas dance, afraid to approach the girls.
I followed the railroad tracks wherever the river claimed too much land to cross. The railroad tracks were elevated above the flood-plains and moved undauntedly between the ditches and the valleys that dropped at sheer slopes all along this manic Ohio River Valley landscape. Every natural concavity was brimming with water now. Many of the pools joined their water to the ever-expanding river that silently spread itself across the valley like a mute tyrant. Attrition and fatigue were not problems known to the river’s regiments. The rains came and went at intervals, never letting up for long, but always thickening the fog like corn starch in black bean soup.
I did not mind the rain. My leather duster was wool-lined and kept me dry and warm. Seeing rain was a nice change from what I was used to seeing. It never rained in the desert. It’s like what my drill sergeant once told me: God did not cry in the Middle East. He was a real bleeding heart for the Heartland, but he was a dry-eyed, hard son-a-bitch in the desert. If you got lost, you were on your own; if you got shot, you were on your own. The only time you did have someone watching your back was when a sharp-shooter had his cross-hairs fixed on your nigger noggin. You never had to worry about the levee breaking out in the desert. Except maybe in your skull. Even now I felt that I needed a watershed for my memories. I needed to relieve the pressure of that torrential flow. What was it the Medic did to help relieve the swelling of Connor’s brain? Trepan? I needed to trepan my memories.
Sometimes I wondered if the only way to remove memories was with a bullet.
I was hungry, and I did not want to wait to eat at the next gas station I might find—however far away it might have been. So I raised my rifle and aimed at the fawn that was most easily seen in the midnight murk. If the Army taught me anything, it was how to kill. I had been a good rifleman on the range, and an even better one in Kabul. There wasn’t a gnat at ten yards that I couldn’t shoot out between his wings.
As I pulled the trigger the fawn looked at me. Its innocent eyes flashed while a passing car’s headlights stabbed through the woods. Its eyes reminded me of someone else’s—pleading, sorrowful eyes. I blinked. The muzzle wavered just before the discharge and the bullet struck a tree over the fawn’s shoulder. The herds of deer scattered, running in every direction. Cursing the darkness, and my unsteady nerves, I watched as the panicked multitude fled. My aim had been true, but my nerves had betrayed me. The military trained you to shoot, but they never could train you how to deal with the aftermath. Despite however rational I tried to be, I still dreaded the sound of a gunshot. The anticipation of the sound was worse, and the ensuing silence was the worst. That terrible, deathly silence that was irrevocable.
I had money to buy food. I was, perhaps, the wealthiest homeless man in the Ohio River Valley. After returning from Afghanistan, I withdrew all of my savings, stowed it in my backpack, shed my military fatigues for a leather duster and denim pants, setting off with no direction in mind except freedom. AWOL freedom. I did not have to hunt to feed myself, but it seemed a shame to squander so much venison. I just needed to aim better, and not let the War shake me too much.
Shouldering my rifle, I reached into my backpack and found the plastic bag where my hand-rolled joints were kept dry. Taking one out, I lit it with my lighter and smoked until my hands relaxed and my heart stopped pounding like a kettle drum. A few drags and I was feeling buzzed enough to calm down, but not be stupid or loopy. Those VA drugs couldn’t do that. That shit made you into a zombie. Half the day you’d spend just staring at the wall, and the other half you’d be dreaming about the wall. I didn’t know which was worse: the zombie pharmaceuticals or the deadly street stuff. I tried to warn Bo about both, but he didn’t listen. He was fool enough to start taking the painkillers they had prescribed for him, and by the end of his tour he was injecting his veins with heroin that was one part opium and two parts antifreeze. Died in a stall in the airport before we boarded. He eventually returned home, but in a box gift-wrapped in the American flag.
No, I was more cautious than that. Mary Jane was my bedside Nightingale. Anything the VA gave you was meant to negate legacy costs with zero patient outcomes. That’s why they never raised taxes to pay for us. They hoped we would either return able-bodied or body-bagged.
As I moved farther along the river I saw that venison wasn’t the only meat rampant around there. The flooding had driven several rabbits up from the valleys, too. They scattered everywhere as I strolled through the dark. If I could have trusted them not to have worms, I would have chosen to eat rabbit instead of deer. Then again, if I couldn’t shoot a fawn at ten yards then I couldn’t hit a rabbit.
Moonlight was not my enemy, but it wasn’t my friend, either. It tricked me with what it showed me, and deceived with what it suggested with shadows. I stumbled several times, following the deer as they bolted here and there. They would slow down, as if confused by the flood waters that pooled in the vales between hillocks and which made a maze of the land left above water. I also worried about pitching headlong into water. I did not want pneumonia because of soaked underwear and cold winds. The desert was cold at night, but you never had to worry about getting soaked to the skin.
Eventually I found myself on a highway. Here, too, the deer were abundant. When they saw me they fled. However, I was surprised to see them flanking the woods directly in front of them, rather than plunging straight into the trees for cover. They could have easily entered the woods, and escaped me, but it was as if the woods were a wall admitting no entry. At first I thought it was because the woods were flooded, like many of the other woods I had seen along the railroad tracks. But the land did not dip to catch water. It spread flatly at the same level beneath the haggard trees as it did beneath my feet, and so there could not be any water to deter the deer from fleeing in that direction, otherwise I would have been sloshing through water at that moment.
I raised my rifle and fired. A fawn tumbled over, dead even as it rocked, trying to stand up again. It trembled, then quivered, and finally lay still next to those shunned trees. Kneeling next to the fawn, I peered through the woods. They were only four or five trees deep, opening on the other side to a vast, moon-glossed field. The fawn could have escaped through there, but it skirted the trees as idiotically as the rest of the herd. All of the deer had skirted it. It made no sense. Curious, I left the fawn where it fell and walked between the trees until I came out on the other side.
There was a house in the center of that vast field. It squatted like a swamp cat in wait. Its muddy driveway ran in a straight line from its lightless portico to the backcountry road, bisecting the expansive stretch of land that was more swamp than field. The moon glistened upon the furrowed vastness where the soggy ground pooled with rains like the backwash of antediluvial times. Beyond the house the trees rose crookedly together like mobs of malcontents sulking and plotting mischief at the peripheries. Beyond them, and all around the horizon, the black knobs shouldered the silent sky and its scattershot-stars. Frogs did not chirp here. Coyotes that had yipped and yowled beyond the trees, and with great mirth, now tiptoed silently through the morass, as if fearful of too much sound amidst too much silence. Neither owl nor whippoorwill called near that stretch of land.
The house was silent and dark. It sat like a shadow within shadows, black-faced with the moon at its back. No one seemed to be awake in its squat squareness. It was like a big tombstone, toppled sideways and forgotten by its descendants.
Not wanting to be caught trespassing, I turned to leave. It was as I was turning that I saw the figure walking among the damp grass and beaten mud. Her bare feet splashed in hushed tones that sounded almost musical. I watched her a while, entranced. She was the whitest black woman I had ever seen, and the whitest white woman, for that matter. Bald, her head glowed brighter than the moon. She was wearing only a thin shirt, her albino legs bare to the thighs. Her calves glistened with water from the puddles she pattered through. It was a cool February night and it would have chilled me to my bones if I didn’t have my coat and muck boots on. Yet, the cold and the damp did not seem to bother her at all. She walked like a little girl through a flower field in July.
Where she passed, earthworms rose from the mud. I could see them because they glimmered in among the moon-kissed puddles. Their luminous bodies wiggled in the drowned earth like melting glow-sticks. I was disturbed to see how unnatural they were. Too large to be normal worms, they looked more like tube-worms rising up from the oceanic depths.
The woman suddenly stopped and turned. She looked directly at me, her eyes glinting with a glancing scant light. I began to withdraw, but she raised a hand; not quite waving and not quite beckoning. It was a languid, limp hand.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was just…well…” I suddenly realized my predicament.
“You were hunting,” she said.
I nodded, wondering if I would have to leave the county by morning.
“That is fine,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone.” She paused, her eyes unblinking in the shade that cowled her face. “Are you tired? You look like you need rest.” Her tone was dreamy, as if she was falling asleep at that very moment.
“I sleep well enough in the woods,” I said, warily.
“No,” she said. “You need rest from your life.”
She walked toward me, her bare feet slapping the swampish grass and mud like soft glottal gagging. She halted at the edge of the morass.
“I am tending my garden,” she said. She raised both hands to indicate the mushy field. “This is my garden of earthly delights.” She said it without any delight whatsoever in her monotone voice. “You are welcome here.”
The earth worms rose wherever she walked, as luminous as her albino skin. My eyes must have adjusted to the dimness because I could see her clearly now, her skin whiter than I had first thought; so white that it glowed like the moon. But it was not perfectly white. Along the edges of her arms and legs and her neck and part of her face, at the edge of her chin, there remained slivers and swathes of dark skin. Her skin had been nearly as black as mine, once upon a time. She must have had the disorder that my uncle had. Vitiligo. It was the body attacking itself. Autoimmune disorder. I always feared I would get it, too, and would one day wake up White.
A chilly February wind brushed against my face like a ghost’s palm.
“Doesn’t this cold bother you?” I asked.
“I have felt much colder,” she said. “This is balmy weather to what I have known upon my flesh.”
I became embarrassed. The way she said my flesh seemed too intimate and suggestive for a stranger to hear. Her eyes, I realized, were pale gray; almost white.
“Come with me,” she said. “Stay with me.”
“I can’t,” was all I could say.
She smiled at me and stepped closer. Her hand raised slowly toward me. I did not step away from her, or flinch.
“You are haunted by horrors, too,” she said, touching my cheek. “No matter how much we struggle, they cling to us, the trace touch of them stinging us even after they let us go and we seek sanctuary in oblivion.” She shivered, then, in the inert air. “Even now I can feel it clutch me with its blanching grasp.”
“I am dangerous,” I warned her.
“So is my husband,” she said. “But he is not here today.”
She smiled, and her smile was beautiful, but also empty. It was a porcelain doll’s smile: crafted to please, but artificial. It reminded me of that little girl in Afghanistan that smiled and then led Bo behind the street corner where a sniper waited. Bo got shot in the chest, the bullet cracking his chest, but not his body armor. He was given medication for the pain. It was supposed to help him live, but all it really did was sway him into killing himself with drugs later. The merciless irony.
“Come,” she said. “It is a cold night and we can keep each other warm.”
Maybe I wanted to die that night. Every functional nerve screamed danger, but I followed her to her house anyway. The dead fawn— and my dead friend— were forgotten.
The house had been damaged by water. Water stains colored the first six runs of siding, darkening the walls from white to greenish black, and the wood that comprised the porch had been damaged by water so badly that it looked like it was made of flotsam. She opened the peeling door and led me inside the house. She did not bother cleaning her feet, and so I did not bother taking off my boots. She lit a candle, illuminating the living room. The interior of the house was muddy and mildewed. Out of curiosity, I flipped a switch on the nearby wall. No lights came on.
“No electricity?” I asked.
She did not answer me. Instead, she lit another candle, lifting it and walking toward a back room. I waited by the front door, my instincts screaming at me to both flee and to follow her. She glanced back at me, then beckoned me with a languid wave of her hand. The gleam of the candle transformed her bald head into an eyeless skull. She had no eyebrows. The ridges of her eye sockets were smoothly sculpted. I stayed by the door, distracting myself from her comely body by staring at the discolored walls in that dilapidated house. There was a stench of more than mere mildew in the house. The air was heavy with a fishy odor, like shrimp on ice. The whole county stank of fish because of the rain and the river, but it was denser here, like a distilled perfume. I felt sickened to my stomach, and yet the nausea disappeared as she approached me.
“My husband will not be home for days,” she said, slipping her shirt over her head and tossing it aside. She stood naked in the dim candlelight, her body a clash of albinism and blackness, coiling in conflict across her sumptuousness. No pubic hair interrupted the marbled mound of her womanhood. “Take me.”
As soon as I saw her bare body I craved it, and forgot the stench and the squalor and all of my survival training. My instincts were swayed by the contours of her figure. Any remaining iota of caution dwindled and withered in the bright whiteness and dark blackness of her starkly conflicted body. I should have left, then and there, and never looked back. But it had been so long since I had touched a woman, and been touched by a woman, and so I let her black-and-white hands pass over me, peeling my dirty clothes from my body. I needed a bath, and she needed a bath, too, but the stench of the house was so pervasive that our mutual smells became a refuge within the oppressive stench of the river and that ruinous house.
We did not make “love” so much as make frenzy. The destitution and self-loathing that I felt was obliterated during our heated rut. I lost sense of my self in her entangling legs and arms and labial folds. I did not want to recover from it. I wanted to die in the climax and let the rest of the fractured mosaic that was my life scatter and sink into shadows and silence. If I was to die then, let me die in the throes of coital obliteration. It was a peace, after all, of its own sort.
But I found myself still breathing after our mutual orgasm, albeit under the strain of the damp, heavy air. Her bedroom smelled of mildew, and so any breathing done was belabored. It was the closest to drowning in air I had ever experienced. The desert could steal your breath, too, with its aridness, but it was not so heavy and moist and rotten as this air, especially now that I lay in a puddle of my own self-loathing.
We lay afterwards on our backs, sharing the only pillow the bed offered. I looked at her sideways, tracing the profile of her black-and-white face. She was bald and zebra-striped and pale-eyed and beautiful. She was a crazy assortment of deal-breaking deformities, and yet they all worked in concert with one another, complementing each other. I realized I did not know her name, so I asked her for her name.
“Zoya,” she said.
Of course, I thought; she had to have a strange name. White folks thought us Black folks chose strange names all of the time, but even I had to admit being perplexed by that name. Zoya.
I did not tell her my name, and she did not ask.
“Your husband doesn’t take care of you,” I said.
“He has done what he needs to do,” she said.
I concluded, upon that instant, that Zoya and her husband were drug users. This house was probably a heroin den. It was too dilapidated to be a Meth lab. But despite my initial conclusion, I had to admit that Zoya didn’t look skanky and bony and wasted with drugs. She was in good shape, and by all measures must have eaten well to keep her curves and her muscles in such excellent condition. She had shown me just how fit and flexible she was when she was grinding on top of me. She had a physique that some supermodels would kill for, and so would some Marines. There were Olympic athletes with less conditioning.
But that wasn’t to say everything about her was beautiful. Her teeth were yellow and her breath stank badly. I didn’t kiss her but once, and she didn’t react to it with any passion, so I didn’t kiss her more than that, thanking God above that she wasn’t romantic and old-fashioned. Her breath was worse than a pussy ever could be.
I unconciously stroked her white-bud nipple as I lay there, thinking. Was her husband a drug dealer? If so, he was probably armed. What if he came in while I was still in bed with his wife? He’d shoot me dead for sure. Then again, maybe that was their plan. Have Zoya bang my brains out and then kill me and rummage through my stuff afterwards for pawn store compensation. No. Any guy that had a woman like Zoya wouldn’t wait until after his woman had fucked the victim. He would have done it while I was tit-stunned at the outset, still fumbling with my dick.
“Your husband,” I said. “What’s he do?”
She did not seem to want to answer the question, so I changed my approach.
“How long has he been gone?”
“A long time,” she said. “But he will return in three days. The river is right for it.”
Looking into her eyes, I saw that their pallor had darkened, and with the darkening came a recognition. It was as if she was a sleepwalker suddenly waking up.
“You still have your rifle, don’t you?” she asked.
I had set it down with my backpack near the door, leaning against a corner.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it…is it powerful enough to kill someone in one shot?”
“Are you wanting me to kill your husband?” I asked, unnerved by the question.
“No,” she said. She said no more on it, and her eyes once again paled like old milk.
Gazing along her body, I realized that there were blisters cropping up along her white flesh, blooming across her breasts and nipples, too. Was it an STD? If so, then I had it, too. I hadn’t had a condom. Sex was one of the last things I thought I would be doing while tramping around the country.
“What is wrong with your skin?” I asked.
She did not answer my question, but stood up and opened the bedroom window. A cold air blew in. The blankets on the bed were too damp to keep me warm, so I hurried to put on my clothes. As I dressed myself, I watched Zoya stand by the window, letting the cold air waft over her naked body. I thought she was crazy, but then I saw something that made me question whether I was the one that was crazy. Her blisters disappeared. Wherever they had popped up, they shriveled and flattened. I couldn’t understand it, but it terrified me.
As I put on my clothes, I watched Zoya watch me. A porcelain emptiness returned to her face. Her eyes were pale and devoid of expression, but when they had darkened her face assumed habitation. Which was worst was hard to decide. When she was “there”, her face brimmed with fear. When she was not “there”, it was like being in a room with a living statue. As I headed to the door, she followed me with her blank gaze.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I was hungry before,” I said. “Now I am starving.”
I stepped outside and found my way back to the fawn that I had shot. The night was cold and the meat had not wasted yet, even in the soggy grass. I slung the deer over my shoulder and brought it to the porch. There, I skinned and gutted it with my bowie knife, throwing the viscera in the swampy yard. Seeing it disturbed me, and I was glad to be rid of it. It reminded me too much of Kabul. The glowing earth worms wiggled up from the drowned soil and converged on the discarded guts. It drove them wild. I didn’t think earth worms ate meat. I thought they just tunneled and tilled through the soil. Maybe they weren’t earth worms.
I cut a chunk of thigh meat and brought it inside the house, letting the rest of the deer air out on the porch. The house was very old and had a stove in the kitchen. There was no wood for miles that was not soaked through and through, so I looked around Zoya’s house for anything that might be burned and not missed. Indifferent as Zoya was, and already in squalor, she did not seem to care. Moreover, I had already decided to take her someplace else once the rain had stopped and the river had receded. She needed help, badly.
I took an old, splintered chair in the kitchen and broke it apart, stuffing its pieces into the iron-bellied stove. Using the lighter I kept in my backpack, I set the wood on fire and tended it with my bowie knife, moving the tinder around as it caught fire and crackled. When the stove was hot enough, I cut the venison into cubes and used my gun-cleaning rod as a kabob, roasting the cubes in the stove until they had cooked enough to eat.
Zoya watched me from the living room. She looked nervous. Maybe she was upset because I had broken her chair. It was only later that I realized that she was afraid of the fire, and its light.
When the meat had cooked well enough, I stripped the kabob with my mouth. The meat burned my tongue, and was gamy, but I was so hungry that it did not matter to me. I ate three kabobs’ worth, and then offered Zoya some. She stared at the hot venison, and shuddered in fear. She broke for the door, running outside. She was still nude, her black-and-white body flashing in the fog-mooned chill of night. She lingered outside, as if collecting her frayed nerves and twining them together.
I watched her as I ate, looking through the kitchen window. She stooped down and picked up what appeared to be a crawdad. Without a second thought, she bit into its head and chewed at it. The remainder of the crawdad was flailing as she popped it into her mouth. She ate several crawdads this way, and all the while the luminous earth worms followed her, springing up from the soggy ground.
“What the hell is wrong with her?” I asked aloud. Neither god nor devil answered me.
When she had eaten all that she wanted, Zoya squatted in the swampy field, her hands clutching her bald head as if she was in agony. I was about to look away— because I have never been fucked up enough to want to watch a woman make like an animal in the wild—but she moaned, as if in terrible pain, and the moan became a shriek, and the shriek tapered to a groaning, grunting sigh, and there came a glow, a phosphorescent spillage, and where she had squatted a whole tangle of earth worms now wiggled and writhed. I retched, looking away. They were parasites, I thought. Maybe some kind of tapeworm. I suddenly feared for my own intestines. Perhaps that was why the deer did not cross this land, and avoided it at the cost of their own lives.
“Fuck this place,” I said.
It was time for me to leave. I needed to get medical help for Zoya. She was living in squalor in a parasite-infested swamp and eating raw mudbugs from a swamp that was probably tainted with blackwater overflow. My appetite gone, I threw the last few pieces of cooked venison into a plastic bag, then grabbed my things and prepared to leave. Outside, Zoya stepped in front of me. Her eyes glowed pallidly and her face was as expressionless as a blank page.
“My husband comes in three days,” she said.
“That’s why I am leaving now,” I said, trying to keep myself calm.
“In three days, he comes,” she said.
I looked down at her feet. The mud swallowed them almost to the ankle, and the earth worms were swaying around her.
Only, they were not earth worms. Part of them looked like earth worms, but as they wiggled and wagged, their ends split apart into small tentacles that writhed independently of each other, grazing her calves with their feelers. They reminded me of little squids, tunneling through the wet muck.
“What are they?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“My children,” Zoya said. “When the river crests their father will come for them. They will follow him downstream and separate, like dandelion seeds from the stalk, scattering and growing and finding wives of their own.”
“Who is your husband?” I asked. I immediately amended the question. “What is your husband?”
She did not answer. The squid-worms glowed brightly around her, swaying like strangely petaled flowers in a rhythmic wind.
I hurried toward the tree line, tearing my eyes away from Zoya. She followed me.
“Don’t leave,” she said, her voice suddenly pleading.
I glanced back and saw the little creatures recoil from her, as if her skin burned them. Her eyes were darker again; browner. Her expression was no longer blank and forced. Somebody was home in her face, looking out through her eyes
“Don’t leave me here alone,” she said. “I…I…”
Her eyes paled once again, and the glowing squid-worms coiled their tendrils around her feet. Her face lost all of its former composition of personality, reverting once more to its impenetrable porcelain mask.
I looked away, horrified, and felt my way through the shadow-flooded trees, leaving that swampy field behind. I did not understand what was wrong with Zoya, and I did not want to understand. I just wanted to get as far away from her as I could that night. The whole world had its share of problems and all you should focus on, I told myself, was your own.
My life had been simple since going AWOL. I traveled and hunted by night. Less eyes to see me, and less light to betray me. Less people to question why a young black man was walking around with a loaded rifle. Evidently it was fine for a black man to be armed in the Middle East, but not in the heartland of America. Okay for a black man to have a gun in a war zone, but not among a bunch of oversensitive Whites. What they didn’t understand was that a black man was always living in a war zone. Your whole life was full of enemies waiting in ambush. The police. The justice system. The media. Fox News. AM radio. Even smiling Whitey was a threat.
Especially smiling Whitey. His smile was always a trap.
I thought about Sylvester Stallone in the movie First Blood and how he gave them a “war you wouldn’t believe”. That was a great quote, but I wasn’t Rambo. I wasn’t a killing machine with PTSD. I was a reluctant soldier with PTSD. War hardened me, but it had hardened me like thin clay, so I was brittle. I wasn’t tempered steel. I wasn’t cold bronze. The desert had taken my greenware heart and heated it, but only after Afghanistan had smashed and flattened it and riddled it with honeycomb holes. It was called the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. It was a dead-end for everybody that went there.
I still wondered how I could be so stupid to be recruited. I had to have been blind back then. Sent to rebuild another country while the one I knew was falling apart. Drugs, gangs, violence, poverty. Same problems; different longitude. I should have known better. But I was a green kid. Worse, I was a green black kid, and that was a “kick me” sign you couldn’t shake off your back.
“Freedom isn’t free,” they said. As if that asinine platitude wasn’t an inherent contradiction. I hated when some of the rednecks in my platoon parroted that stupid shit. It was as insubstantial and absurd as “land of the free” and “United States of America”. We weren’t the land of the free, and we sure as hell weren’t united.
I walked for a while before I realized I had walked in a circle. I told myself that the darkness had fooled me. I told myself that my unfamiliarity with the land, and the deceptive scatter of pools and ponds made me lose my bearings under a starless night as I circumnavigated their concentric mazes. Later that night—or, more accurately, early the next morning—I found a truckstop diner. It was just off the interstate, but also atop a hill, which seemed an unusual place for a truckstop, especially as I watched a tractor trailer climb uphill, roaring in disgruntled agitation at the steep ascent. I followed the road and headed up toward that bright, unnatural beacon amidst so much dreary, damp darkness.
It was too early in the morning for many people to be inside. Most of the truckers were either asleep in their cabs, or getting a jump on the lazy sun. The sun would not be up for three more hours. I walked to the front doors, glancing in through the windows, and then chose to go around to the side of the building. I was in no condition to enter the front door. Too much attention. Too much stank still on me. I looked and smelled like trouble.
Needing a shower, I hid my rifle behind a dumpster, under my duster, and went into the truckstop through a side door. This door led almost directly to the bathrooms and the showers. I knew I stank badly and I did not want an incident because some dumbass redneck trucker decided to open his fat mouth and quip about “jungle stank”. The last time it happened I broke a redneck’s jabbering jaw and fled into the woods, just as the blue-and-red lights of the Law flashed between the trees.
Truckstop showers were never the safest places in the world. Not only did you have to worry about perverts and theft and muggings and seeing things you never wanted to see, but no amount of bleach could sanitize the showers themselves enough to rid yourself of the nagging paranoia that you might catch something from the spigots. Still, it was a better life than in the desert. No amount of water could get the sand out of your ears. It stayed there forever, drifting around and rustling and taunting you with its whispers.
The showers were unoccupied. I chose the one that looked the cleanest, even though I knew any one of them could be teeming with bacteria. In the Army I had to learn to take showers with other dudes, but it was something I never liked. Obviously. I did it because I had to. Now that I was out of the Army, I never wanted to see another guy’s ass again. Hell, I didn’t even want to see my own.
I lathered up with some lye soap I carried in a plastic bag in my backpack, and then rinsed off. Then I dried off. I used a lot of deodorant because I know I still reeked of Zoya’s house, and then I put on a fresh set of clothes. Denim jeans and a sweater. Basic clothes for Winter. Nothing conspicuous. Nothing that a black twenty-something might be wearing in a mugshot. No hoodie. No ghetto jewelry. Just the getup of an upstanding young black man with a non-threatening outlook in life.
When I had finished, I threw my dirty clothes into the quarter-a-spin laundromat just outside the showers. I should have probably just burned the clothes. But I hated to waste anything. While they washed, I went to the diner to buy some coffee. I needed some coffee. It had been a long, strange, unsettling night, and I did not want to go to sleep with the image of those worms fresh in my brain. I needed to put time, and eventually miles, between me and them.
The diner was dimly lit so as to not antagonize its groggy-eyed patrons. There was a long counter with several chairs. A few smaller tables with two chairs apiece sat toward the back. A gray-bearded man in a white apron stood behind the counter, a greasy spatula in his hand. This implement he waved around as he opined on the moral decay of America. Two truckers sat in front of him; one in flannel and the other in denim coveralls. Both had sagging guts that spilled over their laps.
“It’s why we’ve got to fight them over there,” the cook was saying. “The libtards sure as hell ain’t going to fight ‘em here. They’ll give them the keys to the kingdom.”
“And wrap themselves up like good little ragheads,” said the flannel trucker. “I tell ya’, I don’t know what this new generation’s gonna’ do if we ever have World War Three.”
“We’re already in World War Three,” the trucker in the coveralls said. “And they’re losing it. Damn near ten years now and they ain’t done shit over there. We should just bomb the hell outta’ them, but they’re too afraid of doin’ that. ‘Think of the children.’ Hell, the children’d be better off dead.”
“It’s all part of the Globalist agenda,” said the cook. “Weaken America with the Jihadis and then destroy us economically. Then the Chinese come in and take all of our natural resources, sharing them with the UN.”
“Or just keeping it all to themselves and taking over the rest of the world,” the flannel trucker said. “Chinese don’t have no allegiance but to the Chinese. They’re just using the UN Globalists. Playing them like suckers.”
I knew better than to talk to conspiracy nuts, especially since the majority of them were hostile to people of my skin tone, but by the time I made the decision to leave I had already caught the eye of the cook.
“Whoa there, boy,” he said. “You got a hot date or something? You’ve got enough perfume to make a pig farm stink.”
“And he’s wearing a backpack!” remarked the flannel trucker. “Must have a date for the playground.”
The truckers laughed. I sensed trouble coming and started to back away.
“Don’t worry, boy,” the cook said. “You want something to eat? I can make you something. If you’ve got money, I mean.”
I should have said no, but if I did they would have become suspicious. Belligerent.
“I have money,” I said.
“What do you want, then?”
“Can I have some…?” I glanced around for a menu or a sign. Evidently, you were just supposed to know what the diner offered. “…eggs?”
The truckers glanced at each other, then at the cook.
“All right then,” the cook said. “That’s the breakfast of champions, boy.”
He turned around and started preparing the breakfast I ordered. I sat down on a chair that was a couple of seats down from the truckers. They watched me sidelong, and I kept them in my periphery vision, pretending to be looking at a watch on my wrist that didn’t work.
“You in a hurry, boy?” the flannel trucker asked.
“Excuse me?” I said, innocently.
“I said, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ You keep looking at your watch.”
“My watch is broken,” I said, honestly. “I was just wondering what time it is.”
The two men exchanged knowing glances, as if they smelled a rat, and I raised my watch for them to see. I doubted they could see it, as dark as it was in the gloom of the diner, but they took my gesture at face value and abandoned doubt. Somewhat, anyway.
“It’s half past four,” the trucker in coveralls said.
“Too damn early is what time it is,” the flannel trucker said. “Damn pigs can go find themselves something to eat. They don’t need no distiller’s grain.”
“You ain’t Boss Hoss,” the trucker in coveralls said. “So you don’t get to decide when they eat and when they don’t.” He turned his attention to me. “Where you from, boy?”
“Atlanta,” I said.
“What brings you out here?”
“I needed to get away for a while,” I said. It was the truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth was that I needed to get away forever.
“Atlanta’s a nightmare,” the flannel trucker said. “I fucking hate going through that hellhole. Why anybody’d live there is fucking beyond me.” He suddenly looked at me as if surprised; as if I had materialized out of thin air. “Wait a second. Are you moving out here?”
“No,” I said.
He nodded, but did not take his eyes off of me. “Good. If one moves out here, more will follow. That’s how they all are. And then they start breeding…”
“Don’t mind him,” said the cook. “He doesn’t like people much on account that he likes to fuck pigs. But he likes to do it like a gentleman. Offers them flowers and chocolates first.”
The trucker in coveralls snorted a laugh, but the flannel trucker scowled at the cook. The cook did not seem to care. He brought me my eggs, and a few links of sausage, and set them in front of me.
“You want ketchup with them or anything?” he asked.
“Just pepper,” I said.
He handed me a silver shaker and I blackened my eggs with a few shakes. He lingered nearby while I ate, stroking his beard in thought. I tried to ignore him. The eggs and the sausages were fine, but they didn’t earn him the right to stare at me.
“I got it!” he said, suddenly. He grinned. “You’re military, aren’cha’?”
I swallowed the last bite of sausage and cleared my throat. “Ex-military,” I said.
The cook grinned wide. “You ain’t never ex-military,” he said. “I see it in the way you talk and move and eat.”
I could only nod in agreement. The Army had scarred me for life in more ways than one. Their Eagle-tread boot had disfigured and reconfigured me. Uncle Sam’s boot smarted hard, especially in the nuts.
“I served in Vietnam,” the cook said. “Two tours. Fucking hated it. But I’m here. Lots of folks ain’t so lucky. Lots of folks underground.”
I took out my money to pay him, but he waved it away. “Aw no,” he said. “Vets eat for free.” He glanced around suddenly. “Ain’t no sign, but that’s my policy.”
“What about me?” the flannel trucker said. “I was in the military.”
“You were in the National Guard,” the cook said. “That ain’t shit.” He turned to me again. “So what are you really doing out here?”
“I’m just waiting for the floods to subside,” I said. “Then I’m moving on.”
The cook considered this, crossing his arms. “Well, you’ll be waiting for a while. The river ain’t crested yet. Give it time. It’ll be the biggest flood since 1910. This whole valley will be underwater. Well, other than here on this hill. Knock on wood.” He rapped on the wooden counter. “My granddaddy knew what he was doing. He built this diner right here cause he knew all about how that river lounged in the valley. Not a lot of folk did that. No forethought, I guess.”
“Plenty of other folk did the same,” said the trucker in denim coveralls. “Nothing special about knowing to keep your head above water.”
“Some didn’t,” the cook insisted, scowling. “Lots of people gonna’ need to seek higher ground before it’s all said and done.”
They all turned, then, and looked out the windows that lined the counter. Beyond it, you could see the parking lot and its trucks. Beyond the lot lay the trees that marched uphill along the knobs. Several deer moved skittishly through the murk. They were fleet-hoofed phantoms in flight, kicking into leaps as their white tails flashed like little white fires at their rears.
“Look at them deer out there,” the flannel trucker said. “Too bad there ain’t but a coupl’a bucks, and small ones at that.”
“Water’s driving them upland,” said the cook. “There’s something they fear in the water.”
“Yeah,” the flannel trucker said. “The water. It’ll drown ya’.”
The cook shook his head slowly. “I’m tellin’ you that there’s somethin’ in that river they don’t like, and it ain’t just the water.”
“They don’t mind it any other time of the year,” the flannel trucker said. He reeked, I realized, of pigshit. His boots were garnished with it; frosted like a cake.
“Something about the floodwaters scares them,” the cook said. “Something that only comes when the waters rise.”
“Listen to yourself,” the flannel trucker said. “You sound more cuckoo’ed than a white man whose wife just gave birth to a brown baby.”
The cook gave me a shrug of helplessness. The flannel trucker did not care that he made a faux pas. Actually, he seemed pleased with himself.
“Could I have some coffee, please?” I asked, ignoring the trucker’s devilish grin.
“Sure,” said the cook. “How do you want it?”
“Black,” I said.
The cook poured a cup of coffee and handed it to me. “Any creamer or sugar or anything?”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine the way it is.”
“Sure is,” said the flannel trucker. “No need to be mixing it with any creamer. Just ruins ‘em both.”
“That’s enough,” the cook said, reddening. “You keep it up and I’ll throw you out.”
The trucker raised both of his hands in surrender. “I’m just joking,” he said. He smirked in my direction, not unlike Lucifer about to claim a soul. “Truce?”
“I didn’t know we were at war,” I said.
They all laughed, then, and seemed to welcome me into their fold; even the flannel trucker. Not that the flannel trucker would ever have been someone I would have had in a platoon. There was nothing “friendly” about friendly fire, and it happened more than they ever reported on the CBS Evening News.
I was naive about the world before I went into the Army, but there were things I learned before my rude awakening. For instance, I already knew that humans were innately racist. We are. All of us. Whites, Blacks, Asians. It’s basic human nature to be racist, just as it is basic human nature to make fun of kids with big ears or to shun lepers or to mock somebody cheering the opposing football team. That’s not to say it is ever justified; just to acknowledge a basic human inclination. Moreover, anyone who says they are not racist is doubly racist. They’re not “color blind”. They’re only blind to their own racism. What we have to do is just admit the racism and then try to work around it the best we can. That’s what the Army did right. Race did not matter to them. Identity did not matter to them; racial or otherwise. Humanity did not matter to them. You were a tool. You were a weapon. A weapon is to be honed and used. If it is scrutinized at all, then it is to be scrutinized in how well it functions. And race has no bearing on how well a tool funcitons.
That was not to say that there were not racist tools in the Army. There were a bunch of those. They made things worse, sure, but you developed an immunity to it after a while. The only thing you didn’t develop an immunity for was War itself.
“The Army’s good for people,” the cook said, offhandedly, as if he could read my thoughts. “Gives them structure and discipline.”
“Damn straight,” said the flannel trucker. “That’s what’s wrong with your kin in Africa. No structure or discipline. They’re like a bunch of goddamn monkeys throwin’ their shit everywhere.”
“They have militaries in Africa,” I said. “Militaries rule most of Africa. That’s the problem.”
“Yeah, but they’re not White militaries. That’s what’s missing from the equation. Just like in the Middle East. No Whites to lead them. That’s why it’s a chaotic clusterfuck over there. Hell, even the kids kill over there.”
“Kids kill each other here, too,” I said. “Lots of White boys bringing guns to school and mowing kids down.”
“Oh, that’s because their parents are a bunch of drug heads and queers and hippie-dippie libtards.” His scruffy face brightened red. He was becoming angry. “Besides, they ain’t got nothin’ on those colored kids running around with AK’s in the Congo, shooting each other up and rapin’ women.”
“Under orders of the military,” I said.
Miraculously, he reddened even more. His flannel shirt was not half so red. “And what about them kids in the Taliban? Hm? Do you think that’s a military?”
“It’s a militant fundamentalist cult,” I said. “Only one foot farther into the chasm of insanity than any other military.”
“More like a hop, skip, and a jump,” the cook said. “That’s what you mean, right?”
I shrugged indifferently, and sipped my coffee. It was refreshingly bitter.
“You don’t think they’re worse than us, do you?” the flannel trucker asked, eyeing me with ill-concealed spite.
“They get away with more than our military does,” I said, “but if our military could brainwash kids into being killing machines they would. And a lot of those kids do what they’re told because they don’t want their family members to be killed. There are a lot worse things in the world than colored kids just trying to survive. A lot worse.”
The trucker in coveralls grunted. “Why do you care so much? They ain’t your kind anyhow.”
“They are sand niggers,” the flannel trucker said. “All niggers stick together. Until they don’t. As long as they’re blamin’ their problems on Whites they’re happy in their shit holes. The only time a niggers happier is when he’s putting a tire necklace on somebody else. Really makes their faces glow.”
The way the word nigger rolled so easily from his tongue told me that he must have said it all of the time, and in receptive company. I would have liked to hear him say it in downtown Atlanta, or in Fort Meyers military base. I would have liked him to say it in Detroit in the middle of the night, walking down any ghetto street with his head up high and the same arrogance in his eye that gleamed there now.
I did not finish my coffee. I stood up and left the diner. It was a free meal, but it wasn’t worth it. People like that, I thought, would never understand. The problem in the Middle East, and in Africa, and even here in America, was not color or racism or who was on top and who was on the bottom. It was Tribalism. Tribalism of any kind. Black vs white. Red vs blue. Christianity vs Islam. Catholicism vs Protestantism. New York Giants vs. New England Patriots. We didn’t all have to be the same; we just had to abide the differences, if the differences did not make the other person want to go out and kill you just to score points with their petty tribe.
I fetched my rifle and duster from behind the dumpster and went down the road, looking for a place to sleep during the day. I found an old barn that had fallen to disrepair. It had collapsed partially, but was solid enough to stay together and keep out the rain. Wrapping myself up in my duster, I laid down in its shadiest, driest corner, double-checked the things in my backpack, and went to sleep.
Zoya haunted me in my dreams. I saw her, naked in the moonlight, wrapped only in the cold February winds. Her body was a scar of clashing colors. At her feet the luminous worms writhed. Rain fell against her skin and the unnatural whiteness began to glow, like a bioluminescent creature in the oceanic depths. She was now spreadeagled upon the ground, welcoming me with her embrace. Even though the worms writhed around her, I could not resist her. I let her arms enfold me and I nestled my head among her breasts. As I entered her, I saw the quarter moon fall from the sky and descend to the swampy field below. The worms writhed jubilantly and Zoya moaned in ecstacy. Quivering in horror, I felt the coldly burning touch of something alien to the human world slip over the two of us.
I woke in a sweat. The cold February air chilled it to frost. Sitting up, I lit my lighter and warmed myself with its small flame. Breathing rapidly, I tried to calm down. The frigid air burnt my lungs. At least when it was raining the air was warm.
As I huddled around my little lighter I thought again of Zoya. Zebra-striped Zoya. Marbled mistress. Unmixed mulatto. Vitiligo vixen.
Vitiligo. It was a genetic disease. My uncle had it, much to his great consternation. My dad died before it could mark him, too. Some people thought Michael Jackson had it. My uncle thought MJ just wanted to be white and bleached his skin. Uncle Malcom did not like the King of Pop, or white people generally. The irony was that he turned into a white man. He thought them “white devils” and said you could never trust them. I knew better than that. The only people you couldn’t trust were men in suits. The only color that mattered to men in suits was green; green money and green teens. Recruiters were the worst men in suits. Recruiters for religion, for basketball teams, for the Army. The one that circled my school like a buzzard was an Uncle Tom for Uncle Sam. Told me I could get out of the ghetto if I joined the Army. Well, I joined the Army and they took me out of the ghetto, all right, dropping me straight into a war zone. There wasn’t much difference, really, except in longitude, but I still felt duped by the grinning glad-hand.
My uncle was part of the Nation of Islam. They believed some ludicrous shit. I mean, I knew that all religions were bogus, but the Nation of Islam was basically the black KKK. That dumbass trucker in flannel back at the truckstop’s diner was basically just my uncle, except inverted. He spent his life hating things, my uncle. I hated things, too, but after Afghanistan I realized it was sometimes better just to go all Buddha on the world. Not care about anything. Escape through the cracks of society and find peace in the gaps. Become Ellison’s “Invisible Man”—so invisible that you stop existing altogether. Try to go truly invisible, even to yourself. Lose yourself in the apathy inhabiting the shadow of the world’s rigorous dynamo. Find a hole, crawl in, and die. It was when people cared about things that suffering began. Buddha was right about that. When they cared about color, there reigned racism. When they cared about peace, there blossomed war. When they cared about love, there came to be hatred. Caring leads to killing, as sure as rains lead to flooding.
You needed to get a better perspective on things. Perspective was akin to enlightenment. It was a superpower. It was godly. It helped you elevate yourself above the fray and see the big picture, like Martin Luther King could, from up on high. If we couldn’t do that, then the human race was doomed as a species. If we did not reconcile, then something would conquer us, whether it was disease, our own self-destructive belligerence, the environment, or…something else.
But I didn’t care about that. I knew it. A lot of people knew it. A lot of people knew it and did not care, either. They were just trying to survive. All I was trying to do was survive. I thought I might outlive the War while in this wilderness. But the War continued. And the military machine continued. I wished it wouldn’t. I wished it would go AWOL for once. Smoke a blunt and tell the world to fuck off for a while. But there was only one real way to tell the world to fuck off, and to make sure that it did fuck off. I just didn’t have it in me to do that. Not yet. I didn’t have the fight in me to give up the Fight. I battled Death because I was too afraid to battle Life.
And the irony was I could have beaten Life with a single bullet.
Feeling warmed, I put the lighter away and stood up, looking out of the dilapidated barn. It seemed to be afternoon, but the sky was overcast and the earth was dark gray and grim. The black woods surrounded me, heaped toward the sky upon the knobs. A fog drifted like a march of ghosts that had forgotten what they were marching for. I stepped out among them and went for a walk. I needed to move and loosen my joints and tendons. The cold had settled into them, like biting termites, and I needed to shake them with motion. I walked all day— mostly in circles. When I was hungry I sat and ate what remained of the venison I had cooked and bagged at Zoya’s house. The rain fell heavy, in time, and I returned again to the barn. Night fell heavy, too, as did sleep.
After the sniper popped Bo’s chest, the girl had screamed and begun to cry, squatting down and covering her ears with her hands. I froze, unable to move. There was a succession of bullets, one after the other. Most struck the dirty streets and the walls, wisps of dust blooming like dissolving flowers. One struck the girl in the gut, tearing her abdomen apart like a bale of hale pulled into two different directions. Knowing where the sniper was, by deducing the angle of the shots, I ran behind a crumbling wall and took up a position, angling my rifle on the toppled bricks. The sniper was shooting wildly now as the rest of my platoon ran to grab Bo and lay down a suppressive fire. I took my time while they scrambled. I was too focused by shock and adrenaline to feel anything about my own well-being. My attack was methodical and emotionless. I aimed at the glint of the sniper’s scope, spotting it in a window on the fourth storey of a bomb-blasted facade. One shot and the enemy fire ceased. I then hurried to the little girl, forgotten by the rest of my platoon.
She was gurgling blood, her stomach in mutilated disarray. She was too alive to be freed from the pain, and too damaged to be saved. I pointed my rifle at her forehead and fired. I did not know, at that moment, if I cried because I had shot a little girl or because I hated her so much for leading us into a trap. Now, thinking back, I knew it was a little of both. The only ambiguity left was wondering which was the reason I hated myself. Maybe it was both, too.
The medic had already taken Bo and was stripping away his shirt. There was a lot of blood pooling and I thought for certain he was dead. But the medic took off his bullet proof vest and examined the wound. It was blunt trauma, but no puncture wound. The blood was welling on his chest, but there was no deep hemorrhage. There was no damage to his heart.
And yet there was.
The gurgling song of the smaller frogs woke me, as did the fat-throated burping of the bullfrogs. Frogs and crawdads and rabbits and deer were scattered atop the hills and the knobs. The rains were drenching the world again. It was a “gully washer”, as my daddy used to call them. The air was drowning with rain. But I needed to be moving on, or I would have gone mad.
The overflows became as lakes among the laps of the fields between the knobs. These lakes glimmered silently in moonlight, hushed and waiting. It was as if the waters knew something I did not, and kept their secrets in complacent silence. It reminded me of the blank faces of those Afghanis that knew we were going to be attacked, but kept their mouths shut about it.
I had wanted to move on, to continue up the county line, but I couldn’t shake Zoya out of my head. That woman had a hold on me. I tried to forget her, but I couldn’t. The image of her strangely marked face and her pale eyes and sumptuous fertile body followed me among the fog, like a ghost. I turned, and she was there. I looked away, and she was there. I closed my eyes, and she was there. Her pale nipples glowed like lighthouse beacons in the distance. Her cleft glowed, too, calling me to her.
I found a cheap roadside motel strip. Going in, I spoke to the clerk. She was a fat woman with a no-nonsense frown and a ridiculous beehive. Paying her extra for discretion, I rented a room for two nights. I had a plan. I would take Zoya away from that mildewed house, bathe her, and call for an ambulance. When they arrived I would tell them about her parasites and her skin condition and tell them to take her to a hospital for treatment. After they left I would leave, too, wishing Zoya the best and hoping she would come to her senses and leave her neglectful husband— if he existed at all. Maybe he was dead already, or was a figment of her parasitically-induced hallucinogenic imagination. Maybe he had simply gone AWOL from the marriage, leaving her all by her lonesome.
Once I paid for the room I started the long trek to Zoya’s house. As I walked, the clouds parted and the sun shone full over the waterlogged county. I cleaved to the trees for cover, shunning the roads for fear of being spotted and questioned. It was strange to see daylight breech the overcast clouds. Rather than transforming the dreary landscape, it only intensified its dismal gloominess. The trees remained black and twisted, contrasting more crookedly in the bright light. The pools of water were dim with mud and did not gleam within the black forests, but swallowed with their dirty brown depths whatever light touched them between the trees. The grass was sallow and loose, the dark soil beneath it brimming with excess water. Loosened turf and brown rivulets gushed down the sides of knobs like baptismal water down the flanks of shaggy beasts too wild to be tamed. The beast sullied the baptism; the baptism did not cleanse the beast.
The imagery that sprawled around me reminded me of Noah’s flood, which called to mind of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel and the children of Cain. Even religion could not unite the races. Two men could be baptized in the name of Christ and still hate each other for skin color. They could still hate each other for opinions, too, and favorite football teams. That was why I never took too much stock in Faith. My uncle believed in the Nation of Islam, and was crazy, and the cop that shot my cousin Jerome wore a golden crucifix while saying Blacks were the children of Cain. He was crazy, too. I didn’t believe in religion, not because religion made you crazy— people had always been crazy— but because it gave you one more thing to be crazy about.
Bo was a redneck and I was a nigger and it meant precisely fuck-all. Bo thought the same way I did. That’s why he and I got along: not for the things we believed in, but the things we didn’t believe in. Unlike the dumbass rednecks in Basic who were talking about converting Muslims to Christianity, Bo and I talked about the stupidity of the war. The compounded stupidity of it all. Stupidity stacked atop inanity, inanity heaped atop absurdity, and absurdity piled atop insanity. The Army was stupid, the politicians were stupid, the mission was stupid, our fellow soldiers were stupid, and we were stupid for having been conned into that farcical parade of folly that led us from the United States to the “Graveyard of Empires”. The only way for us to deal with the critical mass of stupidity was to laugh about it. We turned folly to jolly.
Or I thought we did, anyway. I didn’t know that Bo had found another coping mechanism.
Bo was like my brother from another mother, even if he was as ginger as Christmas cookies. I had been able to handle Afghanistan pretty well up until I found him in that airport in Atlanta. I had been able to endure the whole misbegotten odyssey until I saw him slumped in the corner of that stall, his arm black-veined and his mouth bubbling froth. It was morbidly comical in its own way, too: that Bo had been shot to death not by a sniper’s bullet, but by a needle. See, every human life was the punchline to some terrible cosmic joke.
The rains ran riot over the sodden earth and no diplomacy could appeal to their kinder nature. It was an insensible excess of violence, its pelting fists but a feint so that it could muster the strength of the river and rally its finishing blow.
Arriving at the swampy field, I noticed first that the worms were nowhere to be seen. As I tromped across the squishy swathe they remained beneath the drowned mud. They must have been nocturnal, I thought.
The house was more derelict and depressing by day than it had been when draped by night. The white siding was gray with mold, and green with water stains. The porch was nearly black with mold. The carcass of the fawn still hung on the porch, preserved by the cold temperatures. I felt guilty about leaving it there, but wondered if there were parasites in it, too.
The animals shunned the field still. No deer, fox, rabbit, or even bird touched its bedraggled expanse, even while the worms were dormant.
“Zoya?” I called. She did not answer. I knocked at the door, but it did not open. I wondered if her husband had returned. He could have been just on the other side of the door, waiting to brain me with a shovel.
Despite my reluctance, I turned the knob and opened the door, cautiously peering into the dank, dark house.
Still no answer. Slowly, with my arms raised, I stepped inside that fetid house, waiting for a gunshot or a blunt instrument to cave my skull in. But the living room was unoccupied and silent and dim. It was as dark now as it had been the night Zoya had invited me inside. I noticed, then, that the ragged curtains blocked every window, darkening the interior against the brightness of the day.
“Zoya?” I repeated, squinting into the murk.
I found her in the bedroom, wrapped in the moldy blankets, sitting in the darkest corner beside the bed. She did not seem to recognize me, her pale eyes devoid of expression.
I pulled her up to her feet. She immediately let the dirty blankets drop, standing before me nakedly and tugging me toward the bed. My loins burned to take her again, and so I did. It was only afterwards, when her unnatural whiteness bloomed with blisters once more, that I hurriedly put on my clothes, wrapped her in my duster, picked her up and carried her out to the living room. When I opened the door, she shrieked and clawed at me like a wild animal. I was so startled by her sudden change that I dropped her. She leapt out of my duster and ran once again into her bedroom. I tried to approach her, as she huddled in the corner, but she hissed and snapped, as if only a beast remained within her pale eyes.
I tried for ten minutes to take her with me. All I got for my efforts were scratches and bites. At one point, her white eyes darkened to brown and she seemed to recognize me.
“My husband will be home tomorrow,” she said. “You have to go. Don’t come back here.”
“You need to go to a hospital,” I said. “You’ve got parasites.”
“They’re my children,” she moaned.
“Come with me,” I said, extending my hand. “You need help.”
“Nothing can help me,” she said. “I am damned.”
Her eyes paled once again and she became that skittish, vicious creature from before.
Not sure if she was a lost cause or not, I left her house and walked toward the diner. I had to talk to someone— anyone— about who she was and what was wrong with her.
The bullet didn’t do that terrible damage to Bo’s heart; the girl did. When she led him away by the finger, and into the crosshairs of a sniper, it destroyed his basic trust in humanity. That was the pain he had to escape with a needle in his veins. That betrayal. It was innocence— hers, and his—that finally caused him to forsake the world.
A hateful downpour came that was heavier with its hammering than any before it. Rivulets ran down the hills among the disheveled grass, baptizing the earth like some wild beast that cared little for ritual or religion. The wind howled in contempt and the pools of water became ponds, the ponds as lakes, their surfaces rising and broadening as they shivered with impatient malice. Was this the warning Noah had received from his god centuries ago? Not a persuasive admonishment, but a malevolent ultimatum? Build your refuge or drown with the rest of my children. Noah’s god was overbearing. The sky was black with his fury. In the desert he was an absentee father. No rains. No angels crying. No wonder the Holy Land was pockmarked with war and mayhem, like some syphilitic whore: god’s children were always brawling over his throne, their petulance intensified by pretenses and weapons of mass destruction, each one wanting to become the “man of the house”.
The parking lot was a choc-a-block maze of tractor trailers. Luckily, everyone seemed to be either inside the diner or inside their cabs. I hid my rifle in my duster behind the dumpster again, then went inside.
The cook saw me come in and motioned me to the counter. Only one seat was available. All o the others were squeaking beneath fat ass truckers scarfing down their lunch.
“I was afraid we ran you off for good,” the cook said.
“I’ve learned to let petty shit slip off my back,” I said.
“Learned that in the Army,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Just from dealing with white people my whole life.”
The cook chuckled. The guy to my right sneered down at his BLT, then bit into it with a vengeance. It reminded me of a hog scrounging for truffles.
“Want a sandwich?” the cook asked. “On the house.”
“Just some coffee,” I said, “and some information.”
The cook nodded and poured me a cup of black, bitter coffee. It was lukewarm and much bitterer than the cup I had early that morning. It must have been sitting for a while. I took a sip of it and did not hide my soured face. I nodded at it, though, because I liked how its god-awful taste woke up my senses.
“What do you need to know about?” he asked.
“Who,” I said. “A woman living by herself down in a valley. Her name’s Zoya.”
“Never heard of her,” he said. “Where she live?”
“In a rundown white house in a field. Muddy drive lane. Muddy house. She’s gone…feral, I think.”
“I think I know which house you’re talking about,” he said. “I didn’t think that house was inhabited. You said her name’s…. what was it?”
“Zoya? She a colored girl?”
“Yes and no,” I said. “She’s albino. Or has Vitiligo.” He gave me a quizzical look. “A skin disease,” I explained. “Turns you white.”
“Like Michael Jackson?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, just to simplify things.
He grinned. “It’s funny to me,” he said. “Us whites are always trying to darken our skin with tanning, and you colors are always trying to lighten your skin with bleaching.”
I gave a noncommital nod.
“The Indians do it now, too,” he said. “Bleach themselves whiter. And I always thought Indian women were the prettiest I’d ever seen. Skin like cinnamon. Why would you go and ruin such pretty skin?”
Again, a noncommital nod.
He did not seem to mind my lack of enthusiasm. “It’s the people who are unhappy with themselves that make it harder for the rest of us to be happy with who we are. Sowing discord. Telling us we oughta’ be a different color. Or we oughta’ love a color more, or hate a color more. Can’t live with themselves happily, so they gotta’ make the rest of us unhappy with what color they are, or aren’t. That was so great about the Army. Made you think beyond yourself. Made you think beyond a lot of different things. No colors matter there except Army Green.”
I couldn’t even muster a noncommital nod.
“But it ain’t ever going to stop for the civilians,” the cook concluded. “No matter who’s yelling at who. It’s like what my momma used to say: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him a Baptist.’”
That much was true, I supposed. And when things did change, they never changed for the right reasons. Flashpoints of change occurred because they were flashy. That was why people seemed to care more about the King of Pop than they did Martin Luther King nowadays. One had more rhinestone luster than the other, and distance and time had made the radiance of one King fade while the other’s ghost was still singing songs on the radio.
I was startled out of these depressing thoughts when I saw the local Sheriff come in, sporting a cowboy hat and wearing sunglasses despite the world outside being darker than sin. Things always became more apparent when the Law was nearby. For instance, I was the only Black man in the entire diner, and since I was the only black man it felt as if the Sheriff’s unseen eyes were fixed on me. In a crowd of white faces, my face was as conspicuous as a raven among a flock of doves
He walked slowly toward me, his cowboy boots click-clopping on the tiled floor. Why this Sheriff was wearing so much cowboy attire, I didn’t know. This was a Heartland state, but it wasn’t the Midwest. The closest prairies were a couple of states Westward.
I couldn’t get up and leave. It would have looked too suspicious. Instead, I asked the cook if I could have that sandwich after all.
“Sure thing,” he said, and immediately made one for me.
While I waited, the Sheriff walked by, then paused.
“Boy,” he said. “You’re sitting in my seat.”
The cook returned just in time with my sandwich.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the sandwich and standing up. I knew better than to fight over a stool with a lawman dressed up like John Wayne. It would have only ended badly for me; either in jail or in a morgue. I took my sandwich and moved to a vacant table.
“Boy,” the Sheriff called after me. I turned and looked at him, not knowing what to expect. “You forgot to pay for your food.”
“It’s on the house, Sheriff,” the cook said.
The Sheriff took off his sunglasses. His blue eyes were compressed between squinty eyelids. “Then he ought to pay for it with gratitude,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, just to expedite this encounter.
“You’re welcome,” the cook said. I could see that he was troubled by the exchange, but he wasn’t going to second-guess the Sheriff too much on my behalf. He brought the Sheriff a sandwich on a plate, and a piece of good ol’ American apple pie. The Sheriff sat down on the stool and took off his hat, revealing thin white hair along a red-tinted neck. He wasn’t the type that tanned; he was the type that burned.
I ate my BLT as quietly as possible, keeping my eyes on the tear-streaked windows, and the darkness that waited beyond them. I did not know what to do about Zoya. She needed help, but I couldn’t help her; not as an AWOL soldier with an arrest warrant out for him in another state. I needed to finish my BLT and then move on. Make my way deeper into the wilderness. Follow the river, like Jim and Huckleberry Finn. I was Jim. My rifle was Huckleberry Finn.
“What’s your name, boy?”
I turned from the window and saw the Sheriff looming over me.
“Jim,” I lied.
“Jim Finn,” I lied.
“I ain’t never seen you around here before,” the Sheriff said, sitting down uninvited at my table. “You new at the wheel?”
“I’m not a trucker,” I said. “I’m on leave.”
“Oh,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, but I could tell that he was not relaxed at all. His posture was distrust and readiness. “So you a soldier?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I should have lied, but the truth came spilling out; just not the whole truth. “Just returned from Afghanistan.”
He crossed his arms. “How many tours?”
“One,” I said. “But I am due back soon.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Going to see some folks,” I said. “Got caught by the river.”
He nodded at this, and his body seemed to relax. “You and everybody else here.” He pushed himself up from the chair, sighing like an old man. “Well, take care, Jim. Thanks for serving this great country of ours. And godspeed.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
He returned to his stool at the counter, and began to eat his apple pie. I ate the rest of my sandwich and discreetly left while the Sheriff was captivated by some whip cream.
I retrieved my rifle and duster from behind the dumpster, then set off toward the river, going behind the truckstop and into the woods, so I could avoid the Sheriff and any other curious eyes.
Through and down I went, the forested knobs recording my footsteps with mud. I walked parallel with the old country roads, glimpsing them occasionally through the black branches and the falling rain. The potholes sloshed with rain, and the cracks were furrowed to trenches as the newborn creeks flowed athwart the roads. I came to a creek that had swollen to a river in its own right and had to cross its narrow bridge to continue on. I let my mind be as a river, flowing in one direction. And yet faces floated up from that river, unbidden, speaking to me, pleading with me, just before sinking again into that torrential flow. I saw Bo, his ginger-headed face convulsing with drugs. I saw the little Afghani girl, her small mouth twisted in ungodly suffering. I saw Zoya, her eyes pale and then dark, pale and then dark, asking me about my rifle and telling me her husband would be coming home soon, just before the luminous squid-worms pulled her into the depths once again. I saw countless other faces rising from that river, and then submerging again, drowning in memories. White, black, brown, yellow, red; faces all agonizing in that river of sorrow. Because what was memory except sorrow? What was remembering things except drowning in the depths of Life instead of just flowing with the sorrows and letting them take you wherever they would? I needed a tourniquet for my memories. I needed something to staunch the flow.
The rain had a musicality to it. It was bellicose, but it was music. War had a musicality to it, too, and it came in swells, dropped to single-note silences, and then chaotically clashed with violent Jazz pitches. It was the music of an arrhythmic heartbeat; one shocked to a stammering hammer-beat just before the heart burst from the stress. The truth was that I hated music, too. I used to listen to Rap, and R&B, Hip-Hop, and even old Soul. No modern shit, though. I didn’t like how modern rappers referred to women as bitches and spoke about nothing but money and partying. I didn’t like the macho grandstanding and the shallow shit stacked tall to give the appearance of depth. But now even the old school Rap and Hip-Hop was too much for me. I couldn’t take the bomb-blasting bass, the confrontational lyrics, the noise of it all. Now I just wanted silence. Utter silence. And not the silence of Afghanistan— the plotting, scheming, antagonistic silence— but the peaceful, unworried silence. The rain was a hushing noise; a uniform cacophony that obliterated its own cadences to create a wall of nothingness. It was a suicidal meaninglessness as the raindrops struck themselves upon the ground, decelerating into the inert puddles. Suicidal. Yes, that was the right word for it. The angels cried and their tears escaped the sorrow by launching themselves along gravity’s pull and crashing themselves into this unfeeling ball of mud and shit. Perhaps I should have antagonized the Sheriff. Perhaps I should have gone back and screamed at him, pull my rifle on him, shot out a window, and let his bullets have had their say. It would have been a small amount of noise to endure before that hushing wall of silence that was Oblivion.
And yet, I could hear Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crooning a song. He was singing “I put a spell on you…because you’re mine” while his crazed carnival music carouseled in the background. It visited me like a macabre hymn in my quietest moments. In Afghanistan it visited me. In the States it visited me. Even now it cycled in my head, competing with the cadence of the rain. Life did put a spell on us. It held onto us tightly and refused to let go. I resented it, and yet his song compelled me. Does a carcass refuse its flies? No, they gradually work their way into its eyes and nose and head and heart. Only a matter of time.
I took the muzzle of my rifle away from my mouth and strapped it again to my shoulder, under my duster. I followed the road until it was overtaken by the river, and then trudged uphill, coming to a field where old cedar posts tottered sideways along the rolling waves of land. Farther ahead I found another barn. This one was newer, and in better shape than the previous one I had spent the night in. Going inside, it smelled of hay and earth. I dried off and used some of the hay to make a fire, sitting down beside it and disassembling my rifle, cleaning it, and putting it back together. The patter of rain on the tin roof made me drowsy. Sleep, paradoxically, was a small suicide we underwent every night so we could live in the morning. I took this suicide willingly enough and slept until nightfall.
I dreamed that I had returned from the war. The airport was full of soldiers, all dressed in desert-dust. They turned as one and looked at me, their accusatory eyes following me as I ran away from them. Running into the woods, I found them there, too, following me like I was an escaped slave, their hounds pulling at their leashes, all snarling and barking at me as I rushed into the woods. I tried to find shadows to hide in, but the sun followed me, too, and it blazed upon me like an eye of condemnation. Coming to a road, I followed it, and found myself once again at the truckstop and its diner. The faces in the diner turned and looked at me, all at once like a bunch of dogs seeing a raccoon enter their yard. They all stood up at once, and I backed away, but it was too late. The doors were completely blocked off, so I ran down the hall and hid in the restroom. I saw Bo slumped in a stall, holding his bleeding heart in his hands.
“None of us ever get away,” he said. “You’ll never be free. Freedom isn’t free, because it doesn’t exist. You’ll always have to do what other people want. Life only gives you one freedom, and that is only if you do it before someone or something takes your own terms away from you. So do it.”
The door to the restroom flung open and the Sheriff and the flannel trucker and countless other flaring faces mobbed me, tying me up and taking me out to the woods where a noose awaited me.
“Die in the desert,” they said, “or die here, nigger.”
The noose was tight as they hauled me up. They were going to take my one and only freedom away from me. The only freedom that actually existed. How I would die…
I awoke to silence. Not the hushed silence of rain; only silence. The silence of a ghost’s scream. The moon was full and shone through the cracks in the barn. I rose and gathered my things. An urgency compelled me. I did not know why. It took hold of me, like a sneeze, and there was no fighting it. I walked outside and followed the sound of the river as it rushed like a titan’s tongue toward its terminal glut.
There was something wrong in the world. On a primordial level, in my deep ancestral blood, I felt something swirling with menace and malice. It wasn’t like sensing a sabertoothed tiger ready to spring; it was like knowing a volcano was going to erupt, and with its eruption there would be no escape. The whole earth would burn with its scream of Death.
But I could not stop running toward it. It was what a soldier did: run toward the danger. It was not something that a civilian could understand. Even in the dark, with the chill of night on my face and the shadows and earth and slick grass betraying me with every step, I ran. Maybe it was something else, too. Maybe it was Zoya calling me back to her. Maybe she was not the only one infected with parasites.
There were no nuances on the front line. Kill or be killed was the only rule that applied. Politicians and pundits and philosophers could heap up rhetoric back in their quiet, peaceful chairs while soldiers heaped up bodies, and were in turn heaped up, ourselves. They should have tried matching the bullet fire with their bullet points and seen, for themselves, which one held the most clout in the exchange. Jesus spoke peace, and said those that lived by the sword would perish by the sword, but it didn’t save him one bit. Not that I didn’t admire him. Sometimes being crucified was not the worst thing that could have happened to me. Maybe I even deserved it.
The moon was riding high when I came across the ridge overlooking the valley where Zoya’s house resided. Beneath the moonlight I could see that the river had rolled into the valley. I walked out upon a long stretch of land that extended into the river like a peninsula. I could see over the line of trees, and saw Zoya glowing in the moonlight.
Naked, Zoya stood on the roof of her house, surrounded by undulating floodwater. I called out to her, but she was transfixed by something beyond the trees. I followed her mesmerized gaze and saw a soft light moving among the flooded trees near the base of a knob. The light was large and soft in its luminosity, not intense like a manmade bulb, but somehow hurting my eyes as if I was staring into the desert sun. Yet, I could not look away. I watched its progress among the backlit trees and felt a primordial fear the likes of which I had never felt, even when bullets rained above my head and bombs exploded through walls to knock dusty bricks against me.
When the creature emerged from the trees, I let out a wavering moan. The pale, luminous thing floated along the water like a giant dead fish limply following the river’s flow. The tentacles along its bloated body undulated with drowsy life as it neared Zoya. Its tentacles reached for her, and she raised her arms to it, welcoming it home. Their luminous offspring swarmed like a school of glowing fish, circling their father like a halo.
I now understood why she had asked me whether my rifle could kill someone in one shot. I raised the rifle and fired. Zoya’s bald head twisted sideways and then she collapsed, her body unresponsive and the white glow dimming to darkness once again. The moon-thing writhed at the report. I shot at it, again and again and it bled but a trickle of glowing blackish ooze. It then turned and floated towards me. I shot again at its bloated flanks, but the bullets were like pin pricks in an elephant’s bulk; they did not deter its progress. I wanted to escape to higher ground in the wooded knobs, but I could not move.
The creature’s long tentacles wove in and around the trees, illuminating them in a mesmerizing light. My body stayed where it was, betraying me as the tentacles rose around me. The glowing pallor of its ropey appendages were like a fish’s belly, or a bloated corpse floating in the water. One tentacle tentatively touched my face. It was so cold that it burned like fire, blinding me with its frigid flesh. It communicated through touch, this needful adaptation evolved in the dark oceans of a planet orbiting a dying star. I saw things no human mind should see. I saw a planet ringed with moons, its surface hilled with water, rising like mountains in other areas as the moons pulled at its watery sphere. The water rose and encircled the moons, creating a web of water. I saw millions of these creatures spiraling around one another in the depths, unable to find bearers for their children, the life in their planet consumed until only they remained. They traveled one of the many long stretches of water to that moon, thickening around it and then spinning as one, unified in their strategy for survival. They had to be unified to survive. Their bodies and the momentum gave the moon greater mass, pulling the hundreds of other moons to it with its gravity, crashing into them and gaining more mass, even as millions of them died in the collision. The moon snowballed, then, engorging on its sister moons. Billions died before their composite planet was large enough to oscillate with enough force to break free of its orbit from the dead planet. It then went spiraling away from its dying star, crashing and scattering across the galaxies for eons, its children spreading as their rogue planet broke apart while pinballing around the galaxy.
Its touch told me to not be afraid— to come into that radiant maw and be one with its unity. It reminded me of the little Afghan girl taking Bo by the finger and leading him to a sniper’s crosshairs. The rage I felt broke the spell.
It didn’t care what color you were, or what religion. Like the Army, it would mark you and use you. It was just trying to survive, just trying to perpetuate its species. It did not belong here on earth. This wasn’t a clash of races. It wasn’t a hostility born of racism. It was a hostility born of mutual incompatibility. One of our species would die if the other was to live. It did not wish to cohabit peacefully. It wished to dominate and supplant. It was worse than racism or slavery; it was prosperity from annihilation.
Desperate to be rid of its touch, my hand sought my bowie knife, but settled on the lighter in my backpack. With a frantic flick of the thumb, I lit the damned tentacle afire. The pale flesh blistered and blackened and bloomed aflame. The creature flailed and shrieked. The fire ate through half the tentacle in a matter of seconds, ringing the limb and rushing toward the bulk. The moon-creature severed the limb like a salamander shedding its tail. The tentacle fell to the ground, the remainder writhing spasmodically before it was completely consumed, melting to a dark bluish ichor that stank. The odor was too overbearing, as was the sting upon my face. I collapsed as the creature lunged toward the safety of the river, floating away between the trees and the hills and the rays of the moon. Its swarm of children followed it out, swimming downstream like glossy strains of lunar gossamers.
I could still feel the cold burn of its touch upon my face, and I could still see its kin spiraling through the galaxy. I could still feel the command of its terrible touch, and the compulsion of its biological drive that had brought it across the dark depths of Space and Time. I watched the creature as it followed the river, disappearing beyond the shadow-palled knobs.
I collapsed upon my knees and waited there until morning. My hand sought a joint, but fumbled them all, dropping them down the side of that hill, all taken by the river. All would be taken by that river, I thought. Eventually.
I awoke an hour or so later. My right eye was blind. My face still stung where the tentacle had touched me. The river was still cresting. Zoya’s body was gone from the roof of her house. Unsteadily, I rose to my feet and picked up my rifle and lighter. My face still stung as if the skin had been burned off. My feet began to race before my mind could, and my heart was runner-up to both. By the time I reached the diner I was sweating as if I had fallen into the river. No doubt I looked like a man recently reborn from drowning in those indifferent waters.
The cook had said there was something in the river. I knew he would believe me. I went into the diner and went straight up to him. He gasped when he saw my face. I told him that Zoya was dead and that her husband had escaped downstream. It was not a lie.
“I was having an affair with her,” I said. “I was returning to try to get her to run away with me, but he got to her before I could save her.”
A trucker said something about “jungle fever”. The cook told him to shut the fuck up.
“You know where he went?” the cook asked me.
“I think so,” I said. “But I need help. And a few other things.”
While the cook called the Sheriff, he let me have the freedom of his kitchen. Scrounging around, I found a kerosene heater in the corner. I took out the cannister and checked it. It was half-full. Rummaging through the drawers, I found a few rags. Atop a shelf I found several empty bottles. I poured the kerosene into three bottles and stuffed their necks with the rags, making molotov cocktails.
The cook saw what I had done and frowned. “The Sheriff won’t let you take the law into your own hands,” he said. “He’s not going to let you burn him alive.”
“I think the Sheriff will want to do worse to him when he sees him,” I said. “Unless he lynches me first.”
“He won’t do that,” the cook said. “I know him. He may not like…well, he may be similar to most other folk around here and think races shouldn’t mix. But he’ll do what’s right by the law.”
“I’m not green,” I said. “I know he doesn’t like blacks.”
“Yeah, you’re green,” the cook said. “Army Green. The Sheriff was a soldier, too. He respects that. He knows a soldier’s worth. Anybody willing to lay down their life for their country has to be a good person.”
“No, they don’t,” I said. “Plenty of Nazis were willing to die for Germany. Plenty were willing to kill, too, based on the color of a man’s skin.”
The cook stroked his gray beard. “That’s true. I can’t deny that. World War II proved white men could be evil. But it also proved we could work together with other colors. The Germans with the Japs. The Brits and Americans with the Arabians and Africans and Latinos. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. My granddaddy fought alongside Brazilians. He was a card-carrying Klan member. But one day a Brazilian saved his life. Kicked a Jap grenade away just before it could explode underneath him. My granddaddy never said nothing bad about anybody after that. Wars can change things for the better, even as things get worse.”
“But what about Vietnam?” I asked, feeling angry. “Vietnam wasn’t a great cause for us. It didn’t bring out the best in the soldiers that went there. It fucked them up.”
The cook seemed stricken, as if he was suffering a stroke. His mouth hung agape and his eyes widened, then he closed his mouth and blinked. “That’s true,” he said haltingly. “I’ve seen some things. I’ve done some things. My Lai wasn’t good for anybody involved. It brought out the worst in us. Mines everywhere. Sprouting up like daisies. What we did was horrible—what I did was horrible— and I don’t offer any justification. Just facts. We changed for the worse. But we also protected each other. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t rat each other out. Only the Lieutenant got sentenced, and he took it like a soldier. Even the Army didn’t like sentencing him. That’s why they gave him such a light sentence. They put us in an impossible situation and then blamed us when shit went wrong. Vietnam didn’t just kill us with land mines in the ground. It put ‘em in our hearts.” He pretended to scratch his cheek, but was really wiping away a tear from his eye. “And let me tell you something. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, we all looked out for each other. We may have hated each other’s guts for thousands of other reasons, but we protected one another.”
I gave a noncommital shrug. War was a temporary watershed for hatred. The resentment and the hatred returned in full flow after the enemy was defeated and there were no more watersheds to lessen its singular direction. The hatred was a river without end, and it brimmed inside every heart.
“It’s like a bridge,” he said. “The timbers hold the bridge up against the wind and the waves, and they don’t care about the color of the timbers beside them.”
I didn’t think he was right about that. Some people would rather the whole of civilization come crashing down upon their heads than watch a black and a white walk down the street together, holding hands. The river would never be truly forded.
The Sheriff brought a posse. There were two officers and a deputy, each armed with shotguns or rifles. All of them had a mean-looking magnum holstered on their hips. They made me nervous, and I wondered what they thought of all of this, especially as they were led by a black man along the river, heading where I had last seen the creature afloat, following the sloshy banks. The sun rose as we went, burning away the shadows of the leafless woods. The river narrowed and thinned as the many watersheds diverted its strength, and I began to wonder if the moon-creature had actually come this way. Where would it hide from the sun? It was too large to shelter in the shallow river now.
“What the hell is that?!” the Sheriff exclaimed.
We found it, its opalescent bulk huddling beneath a bridge to escape the ubiquitous sunlight. It shivered and undulated, spreading its pale tentacles along the underside of the bridge. It could not burrow into the mud like its offspring. It was too large, and the rock too close to the surface in this clay-and-stone land. Perhaps it could not survive without water to keep its large mass from collapsing in upon itself. Perhaps the scant heat in this yet frigid February day was enough to weaken it. To think that it had come thousands of light-years, surviving across the gulfs of space, only to die huddled beneath a bridge like some homeless veteran. I wondered if I would die the same way. Freezing to death under a bridge, or an overpass, or in some other nook of Uncle Sam’s civilization.
The posse panicked when they saw the creature. They fired into its shimmery corpulence with all of their guns, emptying their barrels and chambers in a hellish salvo. The bullets peppered the creature, causing it to trickle blood, but the damage was not lethal.
“It ain’t killin’ it!” a deputy shrieked.
“Keep firin’!” the Sheriff shouted.
Before the posse could reload and fire again, I walked over to the bridge, interrupting their line of sight. The water was little more than a creek here, and the moon-creature was only half-submerged in water. Taking out my lighter, and the two bottles I had prepared, I lit a molotov cocktail and threw it at the creature. The bottle broke upon its body and burst into flames. Its flesh was extremely flammable and the few spread quickly. It tried to flop over— to extinguish the flames in the shallow water— but I lit the other molotov cocktail and threw it, too. It erupted over the creature just like the previous one. It thrashed wildly now, striking the bridge and burning in flames and blistering in the sunlight. It had nowhere to escape to. The posse must have felt it incumbent upon them to claim victory in any way they could, and so unloaded another hail of bullets and slugs upon the creature. The ichor caught fire as it bled from the bullet entry holes, the otherwise negligible wounds carrying the flames into the creature’s flesh along the blue-black runnels. The flames caught within, where no water could reach them, and the creature shrieked and writhed as it burned alive from the inside. Its white flesh burned to a dark putrescence that stained the bridge and the embankments of the creek.
“What the fuck was that?!” the Sheriff demanded, sweating out of every pink pore.
“An invasion,” I said.
I explained what I knew the best way I could. Surprisingly, they were silent the entire time I explained it to them. No interruptions. No “Boy, that ain’t possible” or “You’re a goddamn loony coon”. I told them what I had learned from the creature’s touch. I told them what I had learned by piecing together what it had done to Zoya. that the enemy did not care what color its next wife would be. It did not care what “race”. It was not racist. It was practical. Clinically practical, like the Army itself. It was an invasion machine that did not baulk at method or countermeasure. It wanted to survive. The question was, “Did we want to survive?”
We waited until the fire had run its course, leaving nothing but foul-smelling stains. Then we trekked back to Zoya’s house. The waters had receded now. We found her body in the the crook of a tree, cradled as if she had been crucified. Her bald head had been canoed by the rifle bullet, dribbling the same blackish-blue ichor that had bled from the creature. I climbed the tree to fetch her down and not a single white man below made a jape about a “monkey in a tree”. They were too disturbed to crack jokes.
“What’s wrong with her?” the cook asked, his throat tightening his words to a whisper.
“She has parasites,” I said, setting her limp body upon the ground. “That monster infected her with its offspring.”
When they saw the moon-worms expelling out of Zoya’s dead body, they turned away, nauseated and trembling. They begged me to burn her as quickly as possible. I did. After the flames had extinguished, we gathered her remains and put her bones and ashes in a dufflebag.
“I’ll take the rest of her to the crematorium for a proper burning,” the Sheriff said. “My deputy will take your testimony.”
The Sheriff glanced sidelong at me, then nodded to his deputy, and then his other two officers followed him away from that field; one carrying the dufflebag and the other carrying the guns. They returned uphill, to the road where their squad cars sat. They waited there, their backs turned to us.
I was suffering deja vu of the time I spent taking Bo’s remains to his family. They say you can never step in the same river twice, but the same river sure can drown you endless times. The memories overlapped each other, and the levee broke. I was overcome with grief and horror. I wept for the first time since I found Bo slumped in the restroom stall. I was too overcome to realize that the deputy was eying me sideways. My face stung— with the imprint of the moon creature and with grief— and I did not see him pull his magnum from his holster and raise it, its muzzle aimed at the side of my head. The din of the shot echoed through my skull. I stood motionless, waiting to tumble over. Instead, the deputy fell face forward in the mud. The cook lowered his rifle, then tossed it away, the muzzle still smoking.
“You need to get out of here,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t thank me,” he said, his face pale and sweating. “I’m gonna’ have to tell them you killed him.”
“I know,” I said.
“Go!” he said. “Don’t you stop, neither!”
I went. I followed the river Southbound, keeping with the current. The Sheriff would come for me eventually, assembling a bigger posse— or lynch mob, more than likely—to find me. So I had to get out of the county. I had to get out of the state. There would probably be a manhunt laced with goddamned dragnets, too. They would try to seine me like a minnow. I had to move quickly. I could not afford to dillydally. The hounds of war were after me, as they had always been.
I became sensitive to the sun, and to the heat.
Three days on the run and I began to sense them, too— the wives of the moon creature. I could see them in my blinded eye. They glowed like the moon in that featureless darkness, becoming as beacons for my flight. I went toward them as I left; one and then another. They were marked just like Zoya; just like I was. And like Zoya, their homes were shunned by animals. I went to them, and they welcomed me, and then I gave them what they wanted: I gave them peace.
Now, ever on the run, I hunt the wives of those creatures from another world. I follow the river, and where it floods I look for the women that have been blanched by its cold touch. Because of its touch, I see from two different eyes; one dark brown and the other pale and luminescent. The latter sees in the dark, and detects the infected wives. At times it is difficult to live this life, hunting down the breeding grounds of this alien invasion. I tell myself that I am performing mercy killings for these women; that I am being a good soldier. At other times I feel like I am only a killer, and that I kill because they disgust me so much.
I should have stayed in Afghanistan. There are places in the desert where there are no rivers. There are no rains. I want to bury my head in the sand and forget what I see here— forget everything until all of my thoughts are sand in the recesses of my sun-bleached skull, the world turning me like an hourglass unaware of its own demarcations of Time. I would know nothing but the dry, rainless silence of for all eternity. But I know that I couldn’t survive in the desert now. I would blister and burn up. It changed me, just like the war changed me.
Nowadays I stay away from mirrors. Last time I looked at myself I was well on my way to becoming completely white. But I don’t know if it is vitiligo or that monster’s touch. Who would have thought that turning white in America could be the most ominous thing to happen to a young black man? My uncle, maybe, but not me.
I feel so hot now, and my body needs to be cold. I take off my duster, and my sweater, and my undershirt, and my pants and boots. I wear only my boxers, and feel some relief from the stifling heat as a cold wind sweeps by me, roiling the fog. Sometimes, when I am feeling too hot, I wade into the swollen river. When the clouds lift, I find I cannot tolerate the sunlight. It blisters my skin where it touches me upon my marked face, and so I shun sunlight, staying in caves during the day, and coming out only at night. When I meet my wives along the river, I stay with them, too, in their mildewed homes with their damp, squishy carpets and grimy walls. I sometimes forget who I am and what I am doing. Sometimes I stay with my wives for months on end, looking after our children and awaiting the day when our children will grow large, and take wives of their own. And then I remember who I am, and I kill my wife, and I would kill myself, but then who would be there to fight this war along the riverside? Who would be left upon the front line if I went AWOL from Life one more time?
I shun my own reflection now. It alienates me from myself. It is like when I returned with Bo’s ashes. I saw myself in a mirror at his parents’ home and I was transfixed by how much I had been transformed. There was a collapse around my mouth where a smile could have once been. It was like the destruction of a school or a church or a cinema; the ruin unsalvageable.
War takes a hell of a toll on you.