Ray’s People Have Always Been Soldiers
Ray’s great granddaddy, a Tennessee Volunteer, lay wounded between the lines all night, thirsty, crying, moaning in the darkness. At daybreak, he was carried under a flag of truce to a field hospital where his right arm was added to the other arms, hands, feet, and legs piled in a wagon near blood-spattered surgeons. Some days later, feverish in a Nashville ward, he composed a letter to his anxious parents with the help of one of the Sisters and a laudanum haze.
Ray’s uncle was eating salt pork in his rifle pit when he smelled something funny. He put on his mask and climbed out to find a gas shell not fifty feet away. He was halfway up an apple tree to hang it as a warning to the rest of the company when something knocked the shell out of his right hand. He stared at blood spurting from where his trigger finger should be. It was just gone, and he would be called Trig for the rest of his life.
Ray’s older brother won’t talk about the string of ears he brought back from the Pacific. He doesn’t eat much and keeps mostly to himself back in the woods, sitting on a cane bottom chair in front of his little trailer, smoking hand-rolled Prince Albert’s, guarded by mean dogs and a Japanese sword.
Ray cracks the ice, drinks a cupful of halazone-laced water, and washes up for the first time in two months. He puts on socks kept dry in his helmet, then pries open a can and eats cold beans. No fires allowed. He curls up, shivering on the frozen ground, and stares into darkness, watching for lights on the opposite shore, wishing he could smoke.
Ray Drove the Highways
after the war. Late at night, moon shining down, rain, whatever.
Ray’s boy sets up the Claymores. Then, with the rest of the patrol, he lies and waits. The moonless night is alive. Wings whir near his face and something slithers off to his left. In the distance a big cat roars, followed by a monkey’s scream. A rank smell rises from the damp earth and wetness soaks through his fatigues. His raw crotch and rotted feet burn, long past itching. He could use a doob. Toward dawn the patrol humps back up the hill, grateful nobody came along the trail this time.
Raylene sees a flash. When she comes to, she’s on her back, strapped to a litter in a medivac chopper. Rotors beat the air. Doc puts a canteen to her parched lips, squeezes her arm, and says something she can’t hear. She can’t feel her legs either, can’t move them. The price of a ticket home. Maybe one day she will play softball on fancy new ones, bounding around the base paths like other robo-vets.
The young man with a tape recorder visits Ray again in the hospice wing. In his hand is a genealogy note he found online today: Ray’s great grandfather, wounded in the frontal assault on Grant’s army, moved to Texas with his young bride after the war. The man turns on the machine and Ray labors to tell more about his warrior family. A half hour later he stops talking and nods toward a letter that sits framed on the bedside table. The lined paper is yellow, its pencil scrawl faded. “That was written right after Shiloh,” he says. “You can take it with you.” Ray turns toward the window and stares out at bare trees lining the far side of the driveway. They stand in precise formation, straight and tall against the evening sky.
— originally published in LitnImage, July 2011, and the title story of an upcoming collection of war stories.