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from If I Die in a Combat Zone
Days

"It's incredible, it really is, isn't it? Ever think you'd be humping along some crazy-ass trail like this, jumping up and down like a goddamn bullfrog, dodging bullets all day? Back in Cleveland, man, I'd still be asleep." Barney smiled. "You ever see anything like this? Ever?"

"Yesterday," I said.

"Yesterday? Shit, yesterday wasn't nothing like this."

"Snipers yesterday, snipers today. What's the difference?"

"Guess so." Barney shrugged. "Holes in your ass either way, right? But, I swear, yesterday wasn't nothing like this."

"Snipers yesterday, snipers today," I said again.

Barney laughed. "I tell you one thing," he said. "You think this is bad, just wait till tonight. My God, tonight'll be lovely. I'm digging me a foxhole like a basement."

We lay next to each other until the volley of fire stopped. We didn't bother to raise our rifles. We didn't know which way to shoot, and it was all over anyway.

Barney picked up his helmet and took out a pencil and put a mark on it. "See," he said, grinning and showing me ten marks, "that's ten times today. Count them-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten! Ever been shot at ten times in one day?"

"Yesterday," I said. "And the day before that, and the day before that."

"No way. It's been lots worse today."

"Did you count yesterday?"

"No. Didn't think of it until today. That proves today's worse."

"Well, you should've counted yesterday."

We lay quietly for a time, waiting for the shooting to end, then Barney peeked up. "Off your ass, pal. Company's moving out." He put his pencil away and jumped up like a little kidon a pogo stick. Barney had heart.

I followed him up the trail, taking care to stay a few meters behind him. Barney was not one to worry about land mines. Or snipers. Or dying. He just didn't worry.

"You know," I said, "you really amaze me, kid. No kidding. This crap doesn't get you down, does it?"

"Can't let it," Barney said. "Know what I mean? That's how a man gets himself lethalized."

"Yeah, but--"

"You just can't let it get you down."

It was a hard march and soon enough we stopped the chatter. The day was hot. The days were always hot, even the cool days, and we concentrated on the heat and the fatigue and the simple motions of the march. It went that way for hours. One leg, the next leg. Legs counted the days.

"What time is it?"

"Don't know." Barney didn't look back at me. "Four o'clock maybe."

"Good."

"Tuckered? I'll hump some of that stuff for you, just give the word."

"No, it's okay. We should stop soon. I'll help you dig that basement."

"Cool."

"Basements, I like the sound. Cold, deep. Basements."

A shrill sound. A woman's shriek, a sizzle, a zipping-up sound. It was there, then it was gone, then it was there again.

"Jesus Christ almighty," Barney shouted. He was already flat on his belly. "You okay?"

"I guess. You?"

"No pain. They were aiming at us that time, I swear. You and me."

"Charlie knows who's after him," I said. "You and me."

Barney giggled. "Sure, we'd give 'em hell, wouldn't we? Strangle the little bastards."

We got up, brushed ourselves off, and continued along the line of march.

The trail linked a cluster of hamlets together, little villages to the north and west of the Batangan Peninsula. Dirty, tangled country. Empty villes. No people, no dogs or chickens. It was a fairly wide and flat trail, but it made dangerous slow curves and was flanked by deep hedges and brush. Two squads moved through the tangles on either side of us, protecting the flanks from close-in ambushes, and the company's progress was slow.

"Captain says we're gonna search one more ville today," Barney said. "Maybe--"

"What's he expect to find?"

Barney shrugged. He walked steadily and did not look back. "Well, what does he expect to find? Charlie?"

"Who knows?"

"Get off it, man. Charlie finds us. All day long he's been shooting us up. How's that going to change?"

"Search me," Barney said. "Maybe we'll surprise him."

"Who?"

"Charlie. Maybe we'll surprise him this time."

"You kidding me, Barney?"

The kid giggled. "Can't never tell. I'm tired, so maybe ol' Charles is tired too. That's when we spring our little surprise."

"Tired," I muttered. "Wear the yellow bastards down, right?"

But Barney wasn't listening.

Soon the company stopped moving. Captain Johansen walked up to the front of the column, conferred with a lieutenant, then moved back. He asked for the radio handset, and I listened while he called battalion headquarters and told them we'd found the village and were about to cordon and search it. Then the platoons separated into their own little columns and began circling the hamlet that lay hidden behind thick brush. This was the bad time: The wait.

"What's the name of this goddamn place?" Barney said. He threw down his helmet and sat on it. "Funny, isn't it? Somebody's gonna ask me someday where the hell I was over here, where the bad action was, and, shit, what will I say?"

"Tell them St. Vith."

"What?"

"St. Vith," I said. "That's the name of this ville. It's right here on the map. Want to look?"

He grinned. "What's the difference? You say St. Vith, I guess that's it. I'll never remember. How long's it gonna take me to forget your fuckin' name?"

BACK

from Northern Lights

Heat Storm

Wide awake and restless, Paul Milton Perry clawed away the sheets and swung out of bed, blood weak, his fists clenching and closing like a pulse. He hadn't slept. He sat very still. He listened to the July heat, mosquitoes at the screen windows, inchworms eating in the back pines, the old house, a close-seeming flock of loons. What he did not hear, he imagined. Timber wolves and Indians, the chime of the old man's spoon in the spit bucket, the glacial floes, Harvey hammering at the half-finished bomb shelter, ice cracking in great sheets, the deep pond and Grace's whispering, and a sobbing sound. He sat still. He was naked and sweating and anaemic and flabby. Thinking first about Harvey, then about the heat, then the mosquitoes, he'd been sailing in a gaunt nightlong rush of images and half-dreams, turning, wallowing, listening like a stranger to the sounds of his father's house.

He sat still.

Harvey was coming home.

There was that, and there was Grace, and there were the mosquitoes crazy for blood against the screen windows.

"Lord, now," he moaned, and pushed out of bed, found his glasses, and groped towards the kitchen.

He returned with a black can of insecticide. Then he listened again. The bedroom was sullen and hot, and he was thinking murder. Carefully, he tied the lace curtains to one side. He ignored Grace's first whisper. He pushed the nozzle flush against the screen window. Then, grinning and naked, he pressed the nozzle and began to spray, feeling better, and he flushed the night with poison from his black can.

He grinned and pressed the nozzle. His fingers turned wet and cool from condensed poison, and he listened: mosquitoes and june bugs, dawn crickets, dawn birds, dragonflies and larvae and caterpillars, morning moths and sleeping flies, bear and moose, walleyes and carp and northerns and bullheads and tiny salamanders. It was dark everywhere. The black can hissed in the dark, ejaculating sweet chemicals that filled the great forest and his father's house. He sprayed until the can was empty and light, then he listened, and the odor of poison buoyed him.

He sat on the bed. Harvey was coming home, and he was dizzy.

"Bad night," Grace whispered.

"Lord."

"Poor boy."

"Poor mosquitoes."

" Shhhhh," she always whispered. "Shhhh, just lie back now. Come here, lie back. You're just excited. Phew, what a stink! Come here now. Lie back."

"Killed a billion of them."

"Shhhh, lie back."

"No use. What a night. Lord, what a crummy awful night."

"Relax now. I heard you all night long."

"Mosquitoes, the blasted heat, everything." He sat on the bed. He was still holding the defused can of insecticide. Poison drifted through the dark room.

"Poor boy. Come here now. Here, lie back. Lie back." Her hand moved to his neck. "Here now," she whispered. "Lie back and I'll rub you. Poor boy, I heard you tossing all night long. Just lie back and I'll give you a nice rub and you can sleep and sleep."

"I'm going for a walk."

"None of that. You just lie still and I'll rub you." Her hand brushed up his spine and rested on his shoulder. Vaguely through the cloud of poison he heard the hum of returning insects, thousands and millions of them deep in the woods, and he began scratching himself. He was flabby and restless. "I'm going for a walk."

"Poor, poor Paul," she said. She removed his glasses. "There now. Just lie back and I'll give you a rub. There. There, how's that now? Better now? Poor boy, you're just excited about Harvey coming home, that's all, that's all. Just lie back and I'll rub you and you can sleep."

"What time is it?"

"Shhhhh. Plenty of time. Still dark, see? You just lie still now."

"Lord," he moaned.

"A nice rub?"

"I'm going for a walk."

"Shhhhh, none of that. Let me rub you."

"Damn mosquitoes."

"I know."

"Scratch. There." He lay back. He grinned. "Guess I killed myself some lousy mosquitoes, didn't I?"

"I guess you did."

"Massacred the little buggers."

"Hush up. You killed them all. You're a brave mosquito killer and now you can just go to sleep. Roll on to your tummy and I'll scratch you."

He turned and let her scratch. He felt better. The room sweated with the poison. He lay still and listened to the returning mosquitoes, the dawn insects, listened to Grace murmur in the dark: "There, there. Is that better? Poor boy, I heard you all night long. Just excited, that's all. Aren't you excited? Harvey coming home and everything, I don't blame you. Poor boy. Now, how does that feel? Better now? You just go to sleep."

"What time is it?"

"Sleep time," Grace said. "Plenty of time."

Her fingers went up and down his back. He felt better. "There, there," she was whispering, and Perry grinned and thought about the poison sweeping like mustard gas through the screen windows. He felt better. He pressed his nose into the sheets, lay still while she massaged his shoulders and his neck and his scalp. "There, there," she was whispering, softly now, her hand moving lightly. She whispered like a mother. She smelled of flannel. He felt much better. Gradually, she stopped rubbing and after a time he heard her slow breathing. Her mouth was open and she was asleep. Her teeth were shining.

Then he tried to sleep. But soon he was listening and thinking again, thinking about Harvey.

He tried to imagine what great changes the war might have made in his kid brother. He wondered what they would first say to each other. It was hard to picture.

All night, he had been thinking.

There would be some changes. The wounded eye, for sure. It was hard to imagine Harvey with a wounded eye. Harvey the Bull. The blinded bull. It was hard to picture. In a stiff and static way, he remembered his brother through a handful of stop-motion images, a few images that had been frozen long ago and captured everything important. All night the images spun in his head: Harvey the Bull; Harvey digging the bomb shelter; Harvey off somewhere in the woods with the old man; Harvey playing football; Harvey the rascal; Harvey boarding the bus that would take him to a fort in California and from there to Saigon or Chu Lai or wherever.

It was annoying. The few sharp images were all Paul Perry really had. It was as though he'd lived thirty years for the sake of a half-dozen fast snapshots, everything else either forgotten or superfluous or lost in the shuffle, and all night long the few sharp images flopped before him, gaunt summary of three decades, growing up on the old man's sermons and winter stories, learning to swim as the old man watched without pity, college, marriage, returning to Sawmill Landing, the bomb shelter and the old man's death, a job, winter and summer and millions of pine and Norway spruce and birch, billions of bugs. All collapsed around the few images. But even the images offered no natural sequence. They were random and defiant, clarifying nothing, and Perry spent the long night in myopic wonder, trying to sort them into an order that would progress from start to finish to start.

He lay still. The mosquitoes were back. On the far wall, the first light formed patches against Grace's dressing mirror.

Again he swung out of bed. He dressed quietly and carried his shoes to the kitchen. Outside, the sky was chalk colored. It would be another dry day. Sunday. Standing on the porch, he urinated into Grace's green ferns, then he laced up his shoes, hurried across the lawn, passed the bomb shelter without looking, followed the path by memory to Pliney's Pond.

There he sat on the rocks.

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