I get to thinking how often we took the Lord’s name in vain and took to calling the violence of our own hands divine acts of God. As though all our vengeance had originated from Him and Him alone. We called planes, shot out of the sky, those that hindered the flight of angels—and we’d been the ones to shoot them down.
It was one time McCurry was washed up on the beach after a swim, a piece of one of the planes in his hands as though he’d gone out to wrestle the biggest sea creature he could find and had, at least by approximation, won. He came stumbling up the beach with that big slab of metal tucked under his arm, it nearly drowning him while he fought the waves to bring it ashore. “Look here what I’ve found,” he shouted, out of breath. “Look what God didn’t want flying so close to His Heaven.” He held it up for us to see.
Me and Hartwell had earlier that morning found the plane in a veil of clouds and sighted it in our crosshairs and blew it plumb out of the sky like doves from my and Hartwell’s days back home in hunting season. So what did any of us want to do but gather around and see the hunk of metal up close and see if we could chisel off a piece of it for ourselves, using our hatchets to cut it in segments, medallions we might’ve worn round our necks.
All such days, the days of our sickness. Days we’d spent holding the island together by a thread, keeping it out of enemy hands. Nobody’d even bothered to tell us the island’s actual name. We only knew it, as Command had called it, as I-4. Over I-4 was the only airspace we controlled in the hundred miles between enemy territory and our men on the mainland, so there were ten of us tasked with keeping its skies clean. A job barely suited for boys whose world grew up before they themselves had a chance to grow up in it.
War had called us young and made us older than we’d ever thought possible. There wasn’t one of us under twenty—me I’s already mostly gray-headed. But on the sight of that flotsam we squawked and carried on along the beach like kids let out of school. All that commotion as if none of us had ever before considered what a shot-down plane would look like up close in our hands. As though good-God Himself was catching bullets from our anti-aircraft guns and flinging them as He wished, and for the first time we were handling the evidence of His miracles.
“And the thing is,” McCurry said, holding the four-foot slag up to the sun, “is that most of their-kind of metal floats. I didn’t have to dive too deep to find this.” He swept a hand over it, polished it with spit. Their battle emblem scrawled on the metal, words printed shiny and red in what to us was as foreign as hieroglyphics. The rivets, once tightly wrenched, had all begun to rattle free, and he pried a few out with his dirty thumb-and-finger and started tossing them to us like candy. He said, “Y’all take these home and bore a hole through and string ‘em with your sweetheart’s pearls. Say to her, ‘Baby we tore ‘em to pieces Over There.’” Boys will laugh at anything, so we all laughed even though there wasn’t one of us who honestly thought he’d make it back home to give it a try.
It was my idea and Hartwell caught onto it and he did most of the promoting of it, though it was sure enough my idea: we took the flotsam McCurry had brought to shore and throughout the morning we stood it in various postures along the beachside camp. Used it as a backstop for our baseball games. Placed it in each other’s bunks for a dummy lover and had a real laugh about it all.
I had the idea to auger a rod of lightweight steel through its middle and set it to roast over the fire as a pig. But the east country boys thought it killer to stand the piece up in the sand and take turns slinging a lasso over its metal neck, a lasso we braided from vines and bark. And we played the lasso game all day until time for us to make church on the beach beneath the palmetto trees, stretching out our sun-browned bodies, stretching our necks and spines that were weathered rocks strung on rusty chains.
Church, because after a hundred and seventy-eight days holding down an island with little more weaponry than luck, we needed some kind of devotional time. After that many days not hearing a word from Command, eating what few forms of fish we could extract from the water, you’d be so thirsty all the time that you’d get to thinking about whether or not you could bring yourself to a good cry just to drink the salty tears. One boy or another looked as gaunt as any you’d seen from pictures in world books, him all bowed-up on himself and his bones uprooted from his skin like wings that never fully developed. A sight and sore eyes, all in one.
So we’d made a daily routine of gathering on the beach in afternoons to say things about God, sometimes like we were confessing faith. Other times the same words sounded more like questions we’d never be able to answer.
But not everybody in this old world has piety for the one and same god, and we often had to make room for a few that misbelieved from what we did. One we called Sam who was stricken harder than the rest of us, maybe because he was so tall and the lack of nutrition had depleted him so that he walked hunched more than a man three times his age, Sam had never made it out to church and there was talk about him misbelieving in the whole thing.
Not one of us faired enough with God ourselves to feel qualified to confront Sam about his absences. After all, it had been less about what you believed and more about coming together for a time to remember the days, forever ago, when you had real beliefs and something real behind them. Coming together to believe in each other, if there’d been nothing else, and believe in the fire we often rained from the sky with our big guns, our big ideals. Starving on the inside, down on the ground, but putting the fear of our God in whoever dared to fly overhead.
It helped the morale, did church. But we stayed worried about Sam and why he never attended. And truly grieved were we when Sam came down the hill that day while church was going on, McCurry’s metal slag slung over his shoulder. And grieved were we when he walked it down into the middle of us and plopped it in the sand and commenced bowing to it and dancing around it and groping after it.
“He’s joking,” Hartwell said to me, but whispering.
“No, he aint,” I said, sitting beside Hartwell as I watched Sam losing his mind and soul. We all had to take a few steps back and make sure we were seeing what we were seeing. But there was no mistaking it. The sun was pouring down on us, even as it was dying, onto our faces and shoulders. It poured over the hunched man and his hunched piece of metal while we held our breath.
I worried about the fish we’d been relying on, if in this newly introduced idolatry we would lose our good-found-favor with God and it would all dry up. Hartwell spat across the sand there where we had sculpted an amphitheater, dry spat in the dry wind and he stood up with enough faith to march over to where Sam was. He used words that we couldn’t hear or didn’t want to hear and pulled Sam up from the beach by the scruff of his neck, up from worshipping position.
Hartwell being a foot shorter, even with Sam hunched, looked up the foot to Sam’s eyes and pointed a finger in his long dripping face. Now, I’d never known Hartwell to be religious back home, or even one to go talking about God of any kind, but what Sam was doing had unnerved us all—each of us then capable of no-telling-what. Sam looked down on Hartwell like a hawk does a pestering blackbird nipping at it from behind. He never said anything to Hartwell but finished whatever it was he was mumbling to the metal and walked the length of the beach, leaving the metal behind. With nothing in hand, he trod out into the water and dove beneath and commenced trying to swim.
“Riptide, out there,” McCurry shouted, but Sam paid him no attention. McCurry turned to us, alarmed. “I don’t know if he can swim a lick,” he said. We rushed to the edge of the water and stood with waves lapping our feet, watching Sam make lanky strokes across the wake. Then saw him doddering awkwardly, fighting the waves, taken out to sea by the current. “Now’s the time,” I said, “that if you believe in God, you best be saying something to Him about Sam.” We stared long into the meld of sky and water, sometimes seeing in the distance what we thought was Sam but never sure. Night came quickly upon us just as we’d lost visibility.
In the dark in our hammocks and on our pallets we conjured up scenarios for him in which he had begun an extended de-evolution, had sprouted gills and returned to the sea from which all have come. Some in which he swam home to a wife he didn’t have and to kids he didn’t know. And all this kind of talk distracted us from what the situation seemed to be which was the ol’ hunched boy from the north country had succumbed to his own craziness, had been an empty body all along, a swept-clean house, the kind which demons value to possess. And the dark turn of mind had ended him in the sea like Legion’s swine.
“That’s what paganism gets you,” Hartwell said, when we’d all nearly fallen asleep, saying just what was on all of our minds, but what none of us had the heart to say.
“There is a bending of will, and I don’t know whether or not a man can stand against it,” I said.
“Free will or not, you’re talking about,” McCurry called from his hammock.
“Yes, that’s it,” I said.
One of the smaller men in our bunch, Pete, maybe the quickest to see the under-truth of the whole thing, said, “What difference do it make?” He said it that way, what difference do it make?
“None whatsoever,” I said.
“Then we needn’t explain it,” Pete said. “And if Command bothered to communicate with us, we’d have to tell them no different than a man overboard. Victim of the elements.”
Well, that pretty much settled us for the night and we all crashed finally through the wall of delirium that is so often mortared with insomnia and we slept swinging in our hammocks and on our pallets until nothing else stirred from the darkness.
In the morning we shot another enemy plane and watched as it pinwheeled to the scape of blue ocean and we nearly forgot about Sam out there somewhere sunken to the depths. Fodder for sharks probably.
It wasn’t that we had endless ammunition but that we had become such crackshots with the big guns that seldom was a round wasted. “Boy, if you could take this talent of ours back to the world,” Hartwell said, “you’d make a real fortune.”
“How would you use this talent back home?” I said.
He hadn’t thought it that far through so he gave me a sideways glance of aggravation as if he’d make sure I got skipped over when it was my turn to shoot again.
“You take ten men out from the world and squeeze them onto a tiny island like it’s been with us ten, and they’ll damn near become superhuman,” McCurry said, morale-boosting us.
“Nine,” Pete said, and we all were again put in mind of Sam and his long, fishy self, drifting serenely toward the bottom of the ocean. You wonder about all the dead in the many crevices of this planet, some in deepest caves and others strewn to sea and their sunken ribcages becoming reefs for fish to swim in and out of. You wonder about if there’s a Great Getting Up Morning, and if there is, then I know those reaping angels will have their work cut out for them. Or maybe only so precious few are chosen that their whereabouts are already charted, pinned to a board somewhere, and the harvest won’t take very long at all. That was me, doubtful again and again.
The rest of the day, little planes skittered across our airspace but too far out of our range. We reckoned they’d learned how perilous it was to fly too close to our island, though it was the shorter route for them. Then, around what we believed to be noon, a fat, long one flew close overhead, big red symbols stenciled on its silver wings, its tail painted yellow and bright-green as any winged teal I’d seen while bird-hunting with Hartwell back home. It ducked down and tucked on itself beautifully, shot a few bullets our way like droplets of cool ocean spray.
Most of us just laughed, admiring the daringness of such aerobatics.
“I’ve got him sighted,” Hartwell said, from the gun pit. “Say the word boys, when you’re done with the picture show, and I’ll bring an end to him.”
But none of us said such a word. We watched the plane stunt and swoop as a huge goose, graceful in all of its ways. It crossed our airspace again and rained a few more bullets, almost as if it were spelling something in the sand.
We stood entranced, uncovered, hypnotized by the slick weaving among the clouds. “Good, God,” I heard myself say.
“He’s teasing us,” Hartwell said.
“Consider me good and teased,” McCurry said, his scoop of metal beside him on the sand. His hand propped on it.
The plane made another smooth break-off and flew parallel with the beach, low, in what seemed nearly eye level. Then, it banked hard and took another stroll overhead and spat a few more bullets in our general direction and disappeared beyond the clouds.
We had all closed our eyes, thinking that we could still feel the wind of it on our cheeks, wanting to be up there with it, seeing the island the way angels must, and even when McCurry had said, “I don’t think he even meant to hurt us,” we still hadn’t noticed that Hartwell was hanging over the edge of the gun pit with his throat bloodied from one of the plane’s bullets. That perfect red gushed onto the sand and forged a small river down to where the waves were breaking onto the beach, making the water out to be the scarlet tide I’ve often heard used to describe war.
The sand might as well have been quicksand for all the resistance it gave as we rushed to treat our fallen comrade. Pete knew a few tricks from being a medic in one of the previous wars and he produced a needle from his hip pocket, though he was otherwise shirtless. He began sewing a few sutures from a spool of thread. It was my job to stick my fingers deep into the neck to compress the wound until I could, as Pete said, feel the neckbone.
Hartwell didn’t want to cry. He wasn’t that kind of man. And to his credit he didn’t want to cuss us either. He just wanted to go on to sleep, maybe a sip of cool water before he went, but a sip that we didn’t readily have, so he thanked us kindly anyway and left us for good.
I lifted him from the pit, closed his eyes already silvered over. I thought about how many birds in our hands back home in hunting season had had to suffer because their gunshot wounds weren’t fatal enough. How we’d have to ring their necks until their heads pulled off in our fingers like moss-covered stones. Always the new red on sheen of gray and green feathers. I used to think they were beautiful enough, dead in our hands, that you could’ve painted a mural with their feathers and blood. I thought of Hartwell joining them in the Hereafter and them fluttering around him, lighting on his shoulders. I tried to remember who I would have to write home to about his passing—his momma or his sister. What words I might scratch about the mural he’d painted in death on the white canvas of sand.
Soon the talk began about the scoop of metal having brought us something of a curse and how to rid ourselves of it. But a proper funeral was our first priority.
“Hartwell could shoot a fly off of the nose of the man in the moon,” McCurry said, standing over the open grave where we’d laid Hartwell and wrapped him in a flower-print tablecloth that we’d found washed on the beach. “He was a regular at church. And that must mean something.”
We bowed our heads, some of us to God. We thought about Sam and now Hartwell and how war procures its greatest evil in the everlasting fissure between brothers when one is gone so suddenly. How it seemed that years and years would now transpire and none of them would be considered worthy of this very day.
“He watched over us as any of our mothers would have,” I said, and the others nodded in silent agreement.
We shut the mouth of the grave with slow thumps of sand and over it made a sarcophagus of palmetto branches. We called the whole ceremony church for the day and went back to our living as best we could.
That night, I spent my last wakeful moments counting each man in his hammock by the white shine of his mosquito net drawn over his face like a burial shroud. Making sure we were all accounted for, that no deviance had stolen us away in the dark. I could count those who’d gone before us, too, count them among the same flocks of geese I’d tried to count ever since I was young, the ones that flew over my father’s farm in late spring, shouting their way northward. But counting did no good in getting me to sleep any sooner.
Around midnight, in my mindless preoccupation with counting our number to be ten again, I came up with only seven. Pete was gone from his hammock and the sack of it, swallowed up into itself, was still swinging when I noticed him missing. I searched for him in what amounted to half moonlight, and then saw him out by the palmetto mound on his knees, uncovering what the crabs hadn’t already eaten of Hartwell. From there I dropped to the sand and lay slantwise so that if he looked back in my direction I would be nothing more than a piece of driftwood washed ashore. The metal scoop of flotsam rested beside him, gleaming. When he’d uncovered Hartwell so fully that I thought I could see the frown of the cracked-dead lips, Pete wedged the piece of metal beneath the wrapped body and buried the two.
He went back to our sleeping quarters in the lean-to we’d constructed and I made the long way around the beach and crawled into my hammock after Pete had fallen asleep. The waves poured in, lulling me to sleep if there was such a thing as sleep. In the darkness you could dream yourself anywhere on Earth, but for me it was the same island with the same briny air, of a day when those first ships came to take us back home.
But malaria had hit a couple of the boys from the east country, silently working against them until their symptoms showed for the first time the next morning. And some of us grew sick from the fish we’d had for breakfast, and all in all we’d gone for nearly six months without any word from Command. Even with our unwavering shooting expertise, the ammunition had run low, and they started sending more planes across our airspace, upping the number when they’d notice us doubled over, puking our guts out.
Something got a hold of me to call a council about all of it. The boys sat around listening to me, strung-out on whatever elixir Pete had concocted for us from our dwindling supply of kerosene and herbs and coconut milk. I watched Pete among them and I wanted to bring his late-night attempt to break our curse to the attention of the rest of us. Wanted to applaud the valiancy of his failed effort. And he even looked at me right then with a certain knowing expression, as though he’d seen that boney piece of driftwood watching him and Hartwell’s exhumation.
But all I said was, “Maybe it’s time we get our shit together, boys. Church two times a day. Except when there’s flyovers. Nothing eaten from the southern shore. Only the softer fish. If you cannot identify it, then don’t eat it. Mosquito nets are to be worn every night without exception. If you break these rules, then God have mercy.”
Everybody just watched and listened, hardly saying anything, wondering where this me had come from. I tried to soften up some, “We’ve got to right whatever force that’s working against us. Just keep your nose to the grindstone, please, okay?”
“What about Command?” McCurry asked, his normal morale-boosting self all but withered.
“What the hell about it?” I said. “We are Command now.” The boys mostly just looked around some more at each other, the ones that could bear the strength to raise their heads. Nobody said another word.
The two from the east country were as I’ve heard it said, knocking on death’s door. We tried to get them to speak, to say anything that indicated they had come to terms with life and death and what they might’ve wanted from us concerning their remains. But they only nodded and grinned their sardonic grins at one another the way all the kids I ever knew from the east country always did. It’s like they have their own little language, I remembered Hartwell once saying about it. And speaking to each other in that language, telling one another that it was their times, they parted from us. Hand in hand with each other at the end when the fever had overtaken them.
“They might not have wanted to be buried together,” McCurry said, when me and Pete had finished doing that very thing. But I knew enough to know they couldn’t have fathomed it any other way. So they went, together, hand in hand. We marked their grave with palmettos, as was our new custom.
The next day, the strongest ones among us did the favor of hanging our hammocks in a cleft below the granite hill where we made a new camp. With its cooler shade and its near perfect cover, we started wondering why we hadn’t made camp there a long time ago. Funny how an idea sits there on your doorstep for so long that you begin to think of it as fantasy and then suddenly it becomes reality when you’re at your worst and can’t enjoy it. And in the cleft, we were to the point of hardly moving to cleaner sand to do our business. The rankness of us and our bodies, and the many wastes that erupted thereof, had driven us to madness and church had become only a memory.
The long fat plane came back that morning, after we’d gone a full day without mustering the strength to fire a shot or even think about that labor. We could still look at our forearms and see that they were tight and strong but from the burying we’d had to do. The plane droned on through blue and sunshine as it might have in an ad for any traveler’s magazine. Serene. Reminding me of those days when we all believed the world was tilted in the right direction, before the wars of our fathers, our own wars, drought and famine. A time before all of that, when as a kid I could fish and hunt all day and never go hungry. The plane was unhindered and big enough, fast enough, that it might’ve been able to take us to such an overlap in time where all is reconciled.
“Look at him,” McCurry said, pointing at the plane. “Come to see us naked and ashamed.” We hadn’t moved from our new camp. There’d been a time when we would’ve come storming out on the beach at the sight of such taunting like the angry swarm of hornets we always were. But we stayed hidden more out of convenience than actual fear because there wasn’t one of us that wouldn’t’ve welcomed a clean-sprayed bullet splitting our heads in the way of an ax and soft kindling.
Almost as a wake-up call, a howdy-good-morning, the plane peppered the shoreline with a few bullets, the sand kicking up in such perfect increments it put you in mind of the quick symmetry of a sewing machine. Then it all stopped. It flew over us, maybe picking out our shapes from the rocks. Almost as if it were disappointed with us, it circled the island and fanned the crowns of the palmettos with its low-flying and banked hard in its trademark way and disappeared.
“Don’t think nothing of it boys,” McCurry said. “They don’t make rational decisions about life the way we do. They’re funny that way.”
“They’re trying to run us out of ammo,” I said.
“Of course they are,” Pete said. “And they’ve nearly done that very thing.” We began envisioning how it all would end. Not with us starving but with the plane coming over too many days without us shooting, until a small dispatch of soldiers would be dropped over our island, parachuting down onto our heads and us unable to do anything but watch them. They’d take us as prisoners, or shoot us for sport or for mercy and bury us with our friends. I longed for such a day.
Even as some of us were strong enough to take walks on the beach and check our nets for a few crabs and the rock faces for a few gulls and their eggs, we felt drawn back to the sorry camp there in the cleft. Our den, is how I remember Pete describing it. And we were there in a gentle shiver of wind that had penetrated through a crack in the rock as the plane returned the same afternoon. It swooped down and wagged wings at us, but mostly we had little visual of it and made no attempt to watch it. Just days before it had been the best entertainment we’d known since Hartwell’s girly magazines got swept out to ocean by a purifying wind. But now its presence was hardly more than a wake-up alarm blaring through our sleepy heads.
“Drone, drone, drone,” McCurry said. “All it does is drone. The ever-loving pulse of my cold dead heart.” He pulled a tattered blanket up his chin, trembling with chills in the heat, and the holes in the blanket showed his bruised, skinny legs where once there had been strong, muscular ones he’d used to swim laps around the whole island.
I thought by then that the pilot of the plane had been looking for some new challenge. Maybe waiting for us to poke our heads up from the rocks like gophers, just to see if he could hit us that squarely, if he could shoot as well as we did. I thought it’d be a game if he were so willing. Raise our spirits about our circumstances and maybe raise his from having to see us so beaten down. So I reckon that I did poke mine up and when I did, the tethers were just snapping loose from the belly of the plane and a fine wooden crate the size of a bus careened down until it crashed to shore, bloating for a split second and then bursting at its seams with fresh fruit and sacks of rice and pounds of some kind of jerky and spools of rope and flats of clothes and cases of the stout kind of liquor we’d heard they brewed in their land.
“Good God,” I said, as the plane wagged wings again and turned to leave us.
“Let me see,” McCurry said, scurrying up from his spot. An all-out cornucopia of the substance of our dreams.
“Pete, you gotta see this,” I said. At about the very same instant I’d said it, I could see the signatures of the anti-aircraft rounds hissing through the hot blue day, and with the gentle touch of a finger they found the belly of the plane and made of it a rainbow of fiery shrapnel that arced out over the horizon. The guts of the plane crashed into the ocean with the same quick splashes of sunfish up for air.
Pete sat in the gun pit with his hands still gripped on the stocks and his face set hard against the open sea, mariner eyes of every sick-man lusting for the endless watery plain, sick with being grounded for too long.
The thing I can’t remember is when or whether Pete came back to the den or if he stayed a while afterward in the pit, afraid to move. His face transfigured by having done whatever solemn duty had been fated him. But what I do remember is several of us knocking off early from our daily task of self-pity to eat the provisions from the crate and grow drunk as horses in new wheat. And sleeping hard and good that night with our arms around each other and our prayers slurred.
The next morning a strange garden seemed to be growing near the shoreline: all bright-colored pieces of plane metal, green and yellow and silver and red, lodged in the sand and sprouting in a hedge of totems that seemed to stretch on for a quarter mile. And you could see a sight and shadow of a man picking among the totems, Sam, tending the garden, wedging the pieces in the sand. He had arranged them in a shining labyrinth that did not then seem so wicked, did not seem like a curse, but a perfect altar of light. What sight for any who’d fly over us and glimpse it from above.
Sam was wonderful and clean and bounced along the rows whistling to himself. McCurry, with a piece of the newly provided cloth in a scarf around his neck like damn Roy Rogers or somebody, looked on at Sam and the garden. Struggling to believe what he saw, he said, “I don’t remember a man straight as that. I remember him crooked. Yet here’s him all reshaped.”
I felt my legs wobbly, unsure of their posts as I walked closer to get a better look.
“Nearly dashing too, ain’t he?” I said, believing I was speaking recompense for us, the way Hartwell might have done if he’d still been there with us.
It was hard to pull Sam away from his benevolent work, but we finally did and sat him beside our campfire and marveled at it all. We passed the jerky and liquor and Sam told us how he figured that there’d eventually be special planes that’d fly with no pilots in them, by-chance endeavors over the skies, so that actual pilots would be spared having to see any bloodshed, from having to watch boys like us waste away into extinction.
He stayed for the night and didn’t mind when we were trashed and quoting scripture and making church again in the moon-gleam of the labyrinth.
Before any of us awoke, he slipped away and left the metal garden for us to tend, left us that we might go on into old age if it so awaited us.
The sound of storms out over the water rang in our ears and for the first time we knew it wasn’t our hungered bellies doing the talking. Rains came with winds and the sucking tide reshaped the whole shoreline, but our garden stood.
And ol’ McCurry, God love him, standing drunk and stoic all at once, said he wouldn’t mind us having church again, if it meant we might uncover the faith we’d lost. If it meant all the days of heat and hunger would be behind us. Days when we’d forget our names and forget how we came to be out here on this island. Days forgetting just where our boys are buried and awkwardly stubbing our toes on their palmetto sepulchers and saying we’re sorry but not sure if our apologies could be heard.
But when we all take flight and become, ourselves, creatures unhindered and free, we’ll look back on life aground and long for it. For all the boys who’ve seen their birds gut-shot and squawking, flapping around with pitiful wings, there’ll be a sight of a fish who’s so quickly about your memory and so quickly gone from it.