A Loser's Manifesto

It's story time.

Thank you

To the scattered amount of people who are kind enough to read this blog, I’d like to thank you. I also feel the need to make you aware that I may not be posting anything for a while because I’ve taken on a more ambitious challenge.

It is an idea I’ve been putting on the back burner for far to long, to the point where it has seeped into every story I’ve written for this blog. It was time to see if I could actually write this thing.

When something is complete I will more than likely post it on here, but it may not be for some time. I hope you can be patient in the meantime, and I will continue to appreciate your feedback, and hope you continue to enjoy this blog.

– James

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Wildflowers: part 13

June, 1944

The drumming of the two giant guns started in the morning, stayed strong through the day and night, before they coughed themselves to sleep in the purple hours of dawn. Marla and Alex did not sleep.

For the next several days, the air smelled like wilting fruit, and the pacing of life seemed to quicken.

Marla was in the field catching grasshoppers when she first heard the low buzz from somewhere far away. It steadily grew closer until it swarmed her in shadows that blotted out the sun. Thousands of planes, big and small, were like a glittering fist cutting through the air. She shielded her eyes and ran with them.

She found Alex standing in the middle of the garden. He watched the planes roll past him, and into the abyss.

     Who are they?

She asked.

     They’re not Germans.

Marla, with her eyes still fixed to the shimmering mass above her, crept back into the field, where she stumbled and fell.

The following day, Alex went into the woods. He didn’t have too, but curiosity led him there. His shirt was torn by Marla when she tried to stop him, and in the rush he’d forgotten his pack.

He had ventured deeper into the woods than previously explored, with just his rifle, and the pair of boots that never stayed tied. He passed John’s body on the way out. They floated past each other, adrift.

With the discovery of the gravel road splitting the forest in half, Alex realized he was now eight or nine miles from the cottage. He wouldn’t get back before nightfall.

There was debris strewn about the side of the road, empty rations, gas cans, and shredded German uniforms. The air smelled of burning fuel and the pungency of men.  Alex scurried through looking for anything he could salvage. He was so hungry, and the berries from the woods were turning his stomach.

The road made him nervous. From where he stood, it seemed endless, and he feared every possibility of what it could bring. He slipped back into the woods, certain he had been seen by someone.

By the time he reached John’s remains the night was in full bloom. Its silence echoed off the trees, and the moon was as bright as an Irish nose. Its light threw shadows on the forest floor in a mockery of the sun.

Shrouded in the moon’s watery glow was a young German soldier.  He leaned in quiet appraisal of John’s remains. It was silent.

Alex watched from behind a nearby tree, and in an attempt to move closer, startled the young soldier.

     Hello? Who’s out there? Werner…is that you?

The soldier’s eyes grew wild with the sound of Alex’s rustling. He was terrified.

Alex stepped into the light and raised his gun. The soldier uneasily stepped back. He was unarmed and raised his hands in submission.

     Who’s Werner? Is he out here too?

     Who are you? I am—

     Is there anyone out here with you?

     I don’t know. I’m lost.

Alex noticed the soldier’s skin was clear and unmarked by age or war, before he calmly pulled the trigger and laid the boy at John’s feet.

Early morning, late summer, 1944, somewhere off the beaten path, France, Marla woke up.

Her blonde hair showed blue in the first summery wisps of daylight, as she listened to the rummaging outside her window. It sounded like funeral footsteps.

While lying in bed, Marla could see strands of trampled airborne grass floating in through the window. She thought of the picture of her and her grandmother in their best dresses.

Warily, she lifted her body to gaze into the inevitable. The Nazi army was shambling through the field with a defeated face. Row by row it shambled, back through the dust it had stirred.

Marla backed away from Alex, who was paralyzed with fear. His eyes, so wide and clear, reminded her of the field in the winter, covered in snow.

He called to her as she drifted into the kitchen.

     Marla…Don’t tell them I’m here.

She stood still at the kitchen window, watching the army limp past, and into the abyss. It was a sight she had wished for since John died, one she stopped believing was possible.

With knife in hand, she slowly eased back into the bedroom, her eyes following the army through the windows.

Alex reached out for her.

     Marla, lay down. Maybe they won’t bother us.

She looked down on his trembling body exposed to her, and gripped the knife tighter.  She started crying.

     I wanted you to know what it was like to lose me right before you died, just like he felt.

She struggled to raise the knife. Her arms felt clumsy and weak.

     Please…not like this. If you want to hurt me give me to them. Tell them I’m here and they will kill me. Don’t do this. Don’t let it be you.

Leaning in closer to him, she wiped her tears, and spoke in a trembling voice.

     You’ll always be mine.

Marla stumbled out of the cottage with a piercing shock in her eyes. Alex’s blood quickly caked in the dust, and the knife was still twisted in her grasp. She uneasily marched toward the army.

She caught the attention of an officer who approached with two young soldiers in tow. They shouted something in German and acted cautiously. But, when they saw her eyes, vacant and alone, their weapons lowered.

She stopped before them, her tears streaked through the dust, and the glitter of their uniforms was dulled and soiled. They watched each other for a moment, a chance meeting in the fog of war.

Without hesitation, she raised the knife to attack.

Her hair was as black as night.

end

Wildflowers: part 11

It was a dreary Sunday morning in Bavaria, and Alex sat at the kitchen table reading the paper, listening to his neighbor run her vacuum cleaner.

The news of the day was the same; the world was coming to an end, and his wife, Hannah, was dying with it.

She had once been the blonde beauty, stubborn and strong, four years older than he, who took him in, a young wildling, and tamed him. She was smarter than him, brimming with the highest education. She consumed knowledge, and dazzled him with her regurgitations. She believed every person must recognize and embrace immortality in the rare chance it’s presented.

He learned to share all her beliefs, and fervently so, with fists pounding on tavern tables he’d defend her word as if it was all he loved of her. And behind her pale blue eyes they loved each other, unknown to the teetering edge of madness for which they dwelled.

Soon the air in Germany grew sour, and whispers from darkened rooms escaped into the streets and slithered into homes, frothing with a poisonous bite. The air was charged for a spark that would shock the world and reverberate through time. Hanna looked into the heart of this spark and saw eternity.

And now, as she entered the kitchen, prim and proper in clothes Alex didn’t recognize, she was as faded as the carpet around the living room table

     Are you reading that Bolshevik propaganda again?

     No, I haven’t been able to get that in weeks.

     Good, those swine would have us eating each other if not for The Party.

     Your mother called again.

     What did you tell her?

     I told her you were out…again. Do I have to keep lying to her?

     Yes, I don’t want her to know anything about me anymore.

She stared sullenly into her morning reflection, as if something were hopelessly drowning in the black of her coffee.

     You should come with me today. There’s a great man speaking and I’d love for you to hear him.

     I don’t know. That auditorium gets awfully warm with all those people.

     I don’t know why you keep rejecting this. The Party needs men like you, strong, smart men. You can do a lot of good.

     We’ve had this discussion before, Hanna.

     Just this once, embrace what we’re becoming as a nation. This is our chance at greatness.

He squinted to try and see a glimmer of her past. He’d accept any reminder, maybe just one more sunlit smile from the girl from Munich.  There was a shameful want in his need for her. But she was a bitter shadow of his memory.

     If I go today will you never ask me again?

     If you go today I’ll never have to.

As they walked to the auditorium she held his hand for the first time in over a year. She leaned on him, and kissed his neck.

     I’m proud of you.

He watched as the faces filed into the auditorium, creased with the valleys of poverty and frustration, their plain clothes worn at the elbows, their fingers bitten to the bone, the vulnerable German people, ripe for the plucking.

Inside, the steamy room was abuzz with uniforms and pageantry, waiting for their song. Flag bearers leaned on their colors, horn players tuned to the din of the crowd percolating with nervous excitement, and the stage was draped with banners woven with perverted dreams.

“Where are the men who will speak to us?

They’re in quiet hallways, below the crowd, listening to the doomy echo of their pacing boots above their murmuring rehearsals.

Five minutes to show time, and their hands get nervous. They hope they remember their lines. What if the crowd doesn’t believe them? What if this Passion play, rewritten so many times, is proven false?

They must have faith in the tired masses that will bite their tongues and swallow their morals, so they could spit out their pride.”

The horn players got their cue and started the march without warning. The young flag bearers rang to attention, and the people stood with stone chins and watched. They watched their lives march before them and into the abyss.

Out from the mists stepped a man no less ordinary than someone’s uncle. He glared so sternly. Did he even believe what he was seeing? Alex watched as the demure faces bloomed with prideful anger with a sound of the man’s bellowing voice through a microphone. They were lost, answering the calls of wolves in the forest.

In the midst of the rally Hanna turned to him, pushed her blonde hair from her sweat soaked cheek and shouted:

     This moment will echo forever! You and I will always be here!

They found apples that escaped the frost, deep in the forest, further than they had traveled before. Neither Marla nor Alex had talked about their conversation just two weeks prior, so they felt like testing their limits. Every unknown inch they pushed forward into, bent their limits of expression, until it distorted their gestures. Accidental meetings of their eyes carried with them deeper misunderstandings.

They cooked the apples with rabbit meat. The meal was warm and sugary, and tasted of the sweet softness of memory. They remembered more civilized times when they were strangers.

And with the sweetness of the apples still heavy on her mouth, Marla stood in the doorway of Alex’s bedroom that night, and peered through the dark to watch him sleeping. However, she never crossed the crease in the floorboards that separated her from him. But something beyond mere compulsion stirred in her. It was a loneliness she wanted to inflict upon the world.  She crept over the crease, stumbled in the dark, and found him.

She never looked him in the face, and she rolled her nightgown back down faster than she pulled it up.

As she left the room, feeling him grasp for her, she felt nothing.

From that night her cold façade began to thaw until she was naked and vulnerable before him. Fiercely they gave into urges, ignoring their unfathomable truths in the blacks of their eyes.

The seasons changed, and their habits tightened around their necks. Strange lovers sleep walking through the wilderness.

Marla started seeing images of John. They were involuntary impressions of his life. She lies in bed with Alex, and all she sees is John in his mother’s backyard.

     That night, when you told me the story about your wife, was it the truth?

     Yes, of course. Why do you ask… now?

He looked at her with puzzlement. It had been months since he told her that story.

     I guess when you told me I was so overcome with grief for her, I didn’t think to question whether or not it was true. It just occurred to me.

     It’s true.

     Including the way she died?

     Yes, and I’m offended by your questioning.

     I deserve to know.

     And if I lied?

     It would just crush me… But I trust you.

     Good, because I’d never lie to you.

     I know you wouldn’t. I was just wondering.

Their exhausted bodies lay across each other in the cracks of midday sun through the window. A fist was slowly tightening around them.

continued in part 12…

Wildflowers: part 10

It was an oppressively hot summer day, not a cloud in the sky. Alex kept in the shade of the tree line with the excuse of gathering wood. He kept an eye on Marla laboring in the garden, and John was nowhere to be found.

He thought about summer days as a boy, dirty mouths full of chocolate, fingers smudging store fronts, and spying on the older girls through fences.

It hadn’t seemed so long ago, innocence. He could still name the streets he scarred his knees on, and the people he ran through them with. They were all freckle faced memories, vivid and reddened in the heat of the sun.

Marla meandered down the path leading to the creek, and Alex, with an unconscious will, started drifting that way too.

He followed the tree line to his usual spot, just behind a thick tree with bald roots, the perfect vantage point for spying.

His mouth became dry when she rolled up her matted skirt and slipped into the cool water, and every vessel of his body flexed with excitement when she undid the top two buttons of her blouse.

He could taste the chocolate on his lips, as he imagined her knowing he was there, just like the girls of his childhood putting on knot hole shows, their bodies blossoming in curious union.

She ran her fingers through the water and drank from it, letting it run down her chin and glisten on her chest. She was free, and unaware, beauty unseen. This was the purest gaze of love he’d have for her.

Alex awoke and stared into the trees, like faceless phantoms against the cold starry sky. The cottage was warm and dry, the way he liked it. He hated imagining Marla huddled and cold beneath her sheets.

He never slept through the night, always waking and waiting for something to happen. His life felt like a long breath waiting to be released and forgotten.

There was a rustling from the kitchen, and a shadow interrupting the constant glow of the fire in his doorway. Marla was restless again. Her deep sighs and squeaky shifts in the old wooden chair made him think she wanted company.

     You’re awake?

     I was sleeping, but—

     Oh, did I wake you? I’m sorry. I was trying to be as quiet as possible.

     No, I was just going to say I never sleep through the night anymore. I would have been up anyway.

Their silence was interrupted by the pops and hisses of the fire.

     I never make it through the night anymore either. I have such terrible dreams.

     Understandably so.

     I need something to distract me, like maybe get so drunk I fall out of bed, and in that one moment before I hit the floor I’d be clear of every thought that constantly haunts me. Unfortunately John and I drank all the wine in our first two weeks here.

She stared into the fire, unmoved. He watched the fire reflecting in her eyes and wondered what it burned.

     I was just lying in bed thinking of that story you told me once, the one about the man who spied on his lover just to see how beautiful she was when she was unaware of being watched. I wish you’d make up more stories to tell.

Marla’s eyes turned up towards the ceiling with thought, and then she smiled, and said:

     I’ll tell you the story of the rabbit in my garden, if you’d like?

     Yes, I’d love to hear it.

     There was a little rabbit that came into my garden this summer, it was young and feeble. You had probably killed its mother, so I let it eat what little it could. And before long, that rabbit started visiting me every day. We grew accustomed to each other, neither of us in the garden without the other. But, as the weeks went by it got stronger, and more brazen, and soon it was eating more than I was willing to share. I decided I had to kill it, but when I lifted the ax, I noticed how unusual it was for a rabbit to let me get so close to it. It trusted me, almost as if I were its mother. I was conflicted. This animal trusted me enough to think its life was never in danger, and I suddenly cared for it.

     What did you do?

     I knelt down beside it and watched it eat my carrots, and then I reached out and touched it. It didn’t run away. I cared for and loved its life, and then I ended it.

     Well, then it served its purpose.

     And it was delicious.

     The lesson there is, don’t feed the rabbit.

     It’s too late for lessons. I think I’ll try to get some sleep now. You should too.

Marla gently placed her hand on Alex’s shoulder as she got up to leave. The residual sensation of her hand had not left his shoulder when he came to the sudden understanding that he was the rabbit.

It was early December, the afternoon of the first snowfall. None had fallen yet, but the clouds were bloated and anxious.

Alex woke up that morning, took a shot of cold air, and decided it was time to head back into the woods. He had lost his appetite for rabbit and grouse, and regardless, they had become scarcer in the field. Eating fish from the creek was no longer an option, not since strange things started passing by in the high waters of the fall.

The distant gun John and Marla used to hear had reawakened, and every night it poisoned their dreams. The planes became more frequent overhead too, all headed west, west they pushed forward.

The war was inescapable now. They were in the den of a brooding beast, waiting to be noticed, trapped.

Alex would ask Marla to go into the woods with him, and he knew she would. The more leery they grew in each others presence, the closer they became. Their bond had grown inseparable, like chains around their necks, each carrying the burden of the other. With every passing day the certainty of his lies grew as cloudy as the water they drank. Her hatred for him steamed to the surface, and it frightened him.

He once thought of himself as the shadow of a mountain shrouded in stormy clouds. He’d wait patiently for her troubles to pass and find him, chiseled and proud, a peak in the sun.

But she smelled the sour breath of his sins whenever he spoke. He needed to be clean again, and freed of his troubles. Perhaps if he laid her to rest beside her husband? His hands trembled even with the far off echo of such a question.

To kill for her was easier justified than he thought it’d be “But, my god, to kill her? Even darkness wouldn’t grant me pity.”

And why? Why were his thoughts so twisted? The memories of the man he once was were becoming distorted and faceless. They were ashamed by what they’d seen.

The air danced with the first breezy flakes of snow as they walked into the waiting arms of the woods. It was quiet beneath the blanket of pines. The birds called to them.

Deeper they went, Alex’s gun on his shoulder, and Marla’s hands in her pockets, to what end?

     John and I walked this path the day the Nazis found us.

Marla stopped. Panic powdered her face as she absorbed her surroundings.

     Marla? Is there something wrong?

     No, I’m fine.

     Then come now. The storm is getting worse.

     Are you going to kill me?

Alex looked back at her with astonishment?

     What? Why would I kill you?

     You’re going to kill me, I know it, just like you killed John. You killed him so you’d have me all to yourself, but you didn’t think any of it through, you just did it. And now nothing is what you imagined it would be. I don’t trust you, and you don’t trust in my believing your lies. So you figured you’d take me out here, kill me, and then move on, blend in somewhere, and even if I am found I’ll just be another casualty of war, like all the other dead. No one will ask questions.

     I’m not going to kill you, and where would I go if I did?

     Why not? I’ve been planning to kill you, when you least expect it, just like the rabbit in my garden.

     You’re not a killer, and neither am I.

     Then where are those Germans that killed John? Why haven’t they found us yet?

     I don’t know, but you need to calm down.

Marla writhed and wriggled with anxiety. Her tears washed over her blue eyes.

     Oh, Alex, I don’t know what to think anymore. I’m so confused and afraid.

He took her in his arms, as she wept.

     We’re both afraid. It’s alright. I’m here now, and I’ll never hurt you.

     I don’t know what to believe anymore.

     Believe me.

     I saw his body Alex. I found it. I didn’t want to say anything to you because I thought you had killed him. But, I was never certain. All of my hatred for you was born from my doubts. I needed someone to hate, and you were there.

Alex felt an overwhelming relief and happiness. A bridge across the chasm between them had been revealed. She had finally found his arms, and now his ugly thoughts were still and hung like macabre art on his walls.

     I understand.

     Do you?

     Yes. I understand more than you know. And I would never hurt you or John.

     Then why haven’t you said anything to me about it in all this time?

     Because I’ve been every bit as conflicted as you have. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m making everything up as I go. How do I comfort someone who has lost everything?

     You could have talked to me.

     I know, but I have trouble doing the right thing sometimes.

Alex pulled the gun off his shoulder and extended it towards Marla. She looked at it confused.

     Take it, it’s yours to carry. It’s a sign of my trust.

Marla watched as the snowflakes fell and melted on its wood and steel. She uneasily took it from him.

     Now let’s go back. You look cold.

     What about the deer?

     I’ll get one tomorrow, don’t worry.

He walked ahead of Marla to lead her out of the woods. She stood still and stared at the gun for a moment. It looked foreign in her grasp, the same way it looked in John’s hands. She looked up the path where John’s body still undoubtedly laid, then back at Alex who had stopped and waited for her.

continued in part 11…

Wildflowers: part 9

On a bright, sunny morning, three years before John went to war (by Marla’s recollection) the two lovers lay in a sweat soaked bed in the corner of an attic apartment, high above the Parisian streets.

John’s mother named Marla’s apartment ‘the whore’s love nest’. She’d say it often at night with the same casual passivity she used to turn the pages of her book while sitting upright in bed with her husband. She said it as if she didn’t know John could hear the conversations through the walls of their old house. It shaped every rebellious gaze John cast upon Marla.

This, of course, was before Marla was loved by John’s mother, when she was just a wild gentile freed from the constraints of home, and he a restless Jew discovering the feet beneath him. The war was brooding in the east, but still far enough away for  lovers to forget for moments at a time.

On that particular sunny day Marla rose from the bed to linger by the window, as she often did. She liked to look down on the streets and be the eyes unseen. There was a funeral procession passing below, without any indication as to who had died and why, but Marla didn’t wonder. Instead she focused on one man’s face. He was a man just a shade past his prime with a long Mediterranean air, creased at the cheeks. His dark eyes were vacant and respectfully stared the way mourners do, as he walked in rhythm with the parade of shuffles on the cobble stone street. Marla wondered how close he was to the deceased, and if his solemn face was sincere.

She turned to speak to John, and noticed the picture of her and her grandmother on the night stand. She remembered it was taken on a sad day, the day of a cousin’s funeral. They were both smiling and in their best dresses, dresses only worn for such occasions. It was the only picture she owned of the woman who raised her.

     It’s a beautiful day. We should leave before it gets too hot in here.

     Where should we go?

     We can go to the theater. There’s a wonderful film playing I’d like to see.

     How do you know it’s wonderful without seeing it?

     Because it has a happy ending someone ruined for me the other day.

     Who ruined it for you?

     The woman I work with at the flower shop, Rosemarie. She’s a wretched woman. I suspect she enjoys ruining things.

     Why don’t we go see Marc and Lydia? They’ve been pestering us to come see their “getaway” since the summer began.

     I know, but it’s so far out of the way, and though I like Lydia, Marc hasn’t been the same since that incident last winter.

     Marla, you’re still holding that against him? He didn’t know you were with me, and he was drunk.

     What about Lydia? He did it right in front of her. What man gets too drunk to forget he has a wife? To be perfectly honest, I’d completely forget about it if he didn’t look at me the way he does.

     You’re right. I see it too. If we’re both being honest I’m not sure why I still call Marc a friend. I guess it’s always been Lydia whose company I enjoyed.

Marla climbed back in bed and wrapped her arms around John.

     More than my company?

     I enjoy Lydia’s company, but I need yours.

     You’re a sweet enough man that even if I thought you were lying I’d trust you.

She kissed him, and looked down at their hands interlocked across his chest.

     Do you ever wonder what happens to the world after you die?

     No, and why do you ask such a strange question?

     I don’t know. But I hope we die together so there will be twice as many people at the funeral.

     I’m very glad I love you, or else I’d find you strange.

     I’m very glad I find you strange, or else I might not love you.

Marla stood at the edge of her wilted garden with arms crossed, and looked out over the field. The grey shroud of dusk was beginning to descend; another day had come and gone.

The warmth of summer was weakening and giving way to the decay of fall, and the cold chatter of leaves in the wind.

She often times found herself like this; paralyzed in memory, staring past the scenery, and into another life unfamiliar. She had decided after John had died not to give in to such thoughts, for fear they would consume her. She imagined her flesh and blood wasting from her bones while her mind found bliss in skipping records. For now she still had uses for her body in the material world, and her blood rippled with the steady quakes of fear, virgin pools waiting to be spilled with revenge.

Alex steadily sharpened the ax, as he watched Marla. It had become his obsession, observing this woman. He noticed everything so intimately, the way her pale skin reddened when she brushed against the tall grass, the gentle whispers from her room at night, and every unconscious movement she made unfurled like choreographed dances.

He wanted to take her, and together, drown in the fire swallowing the expanse between them. He swore he saw it glowing red above the trees, deep in the distance. Love, he thought. What great love he had found beneath such an unclean stone.

She pulled herself from her memories, and turned toward the cottage. Her eyes met Alex’s.

     Do we have enough wood?

     I think so, but I’m going to cut more in case we need it.

     There was frost on my window last night. I’m dreading this coming winter.

     We’ll be okay.

     I know. Thank you.

     For what?

     For staying. You could have easily—

     Listen, you don’t need to thank me anymore. I’ve told you, there was never thought of leaving you.

     I know, but I like to remind you sometimes.

Behind her back, she dug her nails into her scarred hands, and met Alex’s smile with the warmth of her own.

     I guess I’ll go cook your favorite, rabbit stew. Don’t cut wood after dark, you’ll hurt yourself.

     Don’t worry, I’ll be in shortly.

That night Marla woke from a dream, her skin sticky with sweat. The cottage was much warmer than it should have been, Alex made sure of it. She sat up and opened the window above the bed and let the cool air fill her lungs. She looked out over the field and rested her head on the sill to dream. The tall grass was green and sturdy as she cut through, letting her hands tickle the fine edges. It was not daylight or darkness, but the silvery light of a moon too close. She came to a clearing where the grass had been trampled and gnarled.  Her bare feet still felt the warmth of the sun as she moved to the middle. There she saw she was surrounded by Nazis. Their faces were grey and indistinguishable, but she could feel their gaze. They looked not with lust or fury, but with an alien curiosity. She wiped her bloody hands on her lips.

When she woke, her chilled breath puffed like smoke from her mouth. She wanted to warm herself by the fire, but on her way there, she stopped in Alex’s doorway. She watched him sleep, the glow of the fire cutting through her nightgown. She watched and wondered of the possibilities.  In that moment she wanted to give him the comfort he so desired. Who is he but another person full of fear and flaws? She thought. Perhaps his fierce love for her is pure in its intentions? And maybe he hadn’t taken John from her?

She wrestled with these thoughts, contradictory of the revenge fueled passion she chose to embrace. It angered her, her weakness, so lonely. She wished for the judging eyes of a mother to tell her what to do.

Balled up in front of the fire, aching for forgetful sleep, she was just a woman, lost, alone, and afraid. Alex coughed in the other room. He was just a man, lost, alone, and afraid, and John was dead. …John was dead.

Marla entered the room and shielded her eyes from the shine of the sun. The air was thick and humid, and smelled of sweat and restlessness. John had not moved from where she left him. He was shriveled up on his side with his back to the door, uninviting. She hesitated before sitting on the edge of the bed and placing her hand on his shoulder. He took a deep breath with her touch and opened his eyes, but would not look at her.

     How are you feeling?

He did not respond, he stared through the wall in front of him into emptiness.

     It’s so warm in here. Do you want to go to the creek with me? I want to cool off before dinner.

     Alex is going into the woods tomorrow. He asked me if I’d go with him.

     Are you going?

     Yes.

     Well that’s good. It will get you out of bed.

John’s eyes remained as steady and dead as stone. Marla grew anxious when he was like that. He was present to her in body only. She reached out and brushed the hair from his forehead, and kissed him.

     Do you remember the day we ran away together? It was right after we met. I didn’t even know your last name, but you came and swept me from the flower shop and led me all throughout Paris. My hand never left yours as you took me from one sight to the next. We did all the things I dreamt of doing in Paris when I was young. We were romantics, me the silly village girl, and you the clever city boy. And at the end of the day, when you brought me back, just as the street lamps were flickering on, you kissed me for the first time. Do you remember?

     No, I don’t remember. I’m so sorry.

     It’s okay, it’s just a story I imagined. But we had days like that. We had so many days like that once.

He rolled over to face her finally. His green eyes clouded with the careless fingerprints of war.

     I know about those days. I can still feel them somewhere. Tomorrow I’ll remember them, when I’m feeling better.

She lied down with him, and rested her head on his shoulder to watch the sun slowly fall.

Wildflowers: part 8

It was getting later in the summer and the three ragged refugees all wore their exhaustion like sweat shined masks.  That morning, like the one before, and the one before that, was too warm for comfort.  The sun’s hot breath beat on Marla’s neck as she labored in the garden alone. Alex was sure to find her.

He came up the path from the creek, and stopped at the edge of the garden to watch Marla.

He said:

     The Garden is in full bloom. You’re good at this.

     Thank you.

Alex knelt down and fondled some of plants, feigning interest.

     Did you hear the planes overhead this morning?

     No.

     The first planes I’ve seen since I’ve been here. They were German planes of course. Luckily they were too far off to see us.

Marla pulled a carrot from the ground, and cleaned the dirt off in her watering bucket.

     Where is John?

     He’s not feeling well.

     Is he sick?

     No, some days he just can’t get out of bed.

     I know the feeling.

     Not this kind of feeling, you don’t.

     He worries about you. He often wonders what would become of you if something happened to him.

     He knows I’ll be fine. He’ll be fine too.

     I promised him I’d take care of you if anything should happen.

     That’s kind of you, but nothing will happen.

     Let’s hope not. I told him how I feel about you, that I love you. He deserves to know.

     Didn’t I deserve to know?

     Yes, that’s why I’m telling you now.

Marla stood up and wiped her hands on her skirt before pulling a ripe tomato from the vine. She held it close to her nose to smell it.

     I don’t believe you, but if it keeps you occupied then you’re free to do so. Don’t tell John such things though.

     You’re right, I didn’t tell him, but I do love you. That much is true.

     You’re like a nervous little boy, so eager to please.

     I’m only that way with you. I don’t care about anything else.

Marla laughed.

     The first time I saw you I pitied you. You looked so frail and pathetic. But, as I saw the life flood back into your body I saw a beauty I never could have imagined. It’s an effortless beauty and it has bonded with me. It is all I see in the light, and all I feel in the dark. I want to make you happy and forgetful of your struggles, Marla.

     Your flattery is appreciated, but you must keep these ideas to yourself. I can only love one man and you are not him.

     I won’t stop trying.

     Then you need to leave.

     Do I leave and face an almost certain death? Or do I stay and die a thousand deaths?

     Your dramatics won’t win you sympathy. Death is not a certainty if you leave, and you are free to stay, and even love me, provided you are a civilized gentleman.

     Will you ever be warmer to me?

     No.

     Will you ever love me?

Marla hesitated for a moment long enough for Alex live a lifetime in.

     No.

     Thank you, I think I would like to stay.

     Good, now help me pick these tomatoes.

 

Marla looked out into the night with hope she’d see the familiar movement of her husband coming up the path. She did her best to dismiss the dark concoctions of her worried mind, but it was obvious something had happened. John would never have stayed out this late on purpose.

She had made dinner hours earlier, and even ate her share. The table was still set, John and Alex on the ends, and Marla in the middle. There she sat, alone, looking at her clouded reflection in the window.

There was suddenly movement in the dark, slow and plodding. It was a tall man, with the vacancy of wandering in his stride. It was Alex, painfully alone.

In a panic, Marla rushed out to meet him, and dragged his listless body into the cottage. He stammered nonsense and his eyes were in the grips of shock.

Marla begged him to tell her where her husband was, but he could only reply with mumbled fragments.

     Germans…blood on the leaves….I saw a deer run from me.

     Where is he? Please tell me.

The jagged waves of panic were in Marla’s voice as she held up Alex’s body. When it dawned on her he was stumbling toward her and John’s room she began to fight and scratch to keep him from their bed. She wedged her small body between Alex and the bed, but he easily overpowered her, and collapsed face first between the grooves worn in by Marla and John’s bodies..

In the scrum Marla had fallen to the floor. She lay defeated beside the bed as Alex mumbled himself into unconsciousness.

She stared up at the ceiling listening to his breathing.  Her mind fluttered and blinked through all the possibilities, but it was her darkest suspicions that growled from the cold recesses of her being. It fed an instant hatred for Alex, without certainty of why.

She repeated a single sentence.

I hope you die. I hope you die. I hope you die…

The hopelessness made her sick to her stomach. She heaved and buckled as she picked herself up off the floor, and very suddenly, she found herself at the mouth of the forest. The impenetrable black deadened her cries for her husband. She screamed until she was hoarse, then lowered her head and gave her body to the darkness.

When Marla opened her eyes again, the room was dyed with the purple hues of the afternoon. She was in her bed, hoping before she took a breath that death had found her, and perhaps it was John’s disembodied presence she felt so heavy in the other room. But the painful reminder of life came when she peeled her bloodied knees and elbows off the sheets, and sat up to the reminder of death. Her clothes were tattered, the gritty taste of earth was on her tongue, and it was Alex’s earthbound flesh that disturbed the quiet in the kitchen.

She found him slumped at the table, a stray leaf in his hair, and noticeable scratches from her nails across his face.

He asked:

     Are you okay?

She poured herself a glass of water and drank it so quickly it leaked out the sides of her mouth. When she was done, she poured herself another.

     It’s a good thing you didn’t venture too far from here. You could have been lost. I looked for John after I brought you back. At first light I’ll go back out and search or him some more.

Marla refused to turn and face him. She stared out the window, her dirty cheeks streaked clean from the water.

     The moon was just bright enough for me to find some of the paths you and John had made. He spent so much time in those woods before you found us. I always wondered what he thought about out there. When I became too weak to walk I crawled, and when I couldn’t crawl I ate the dirt where I lay, in hopes that some part of him had seeped into the soil and would call for me.

She turned to look at Alex’s sullen face.

     He’s dead.

The bird songs heard outside the windows were in stark contrast to the silence inside the stuffy cottage. Alex’s eyes could only stay fixed on Marla’s dirty feet. He had no immediate affection for them, but he wondered how callused they were.

She said:

     I’m just so grateful you survived. I don’t know what I would have done if I were left alone.

His eyes lifted to meet hers, with a teary flash of surprise.

     I’m sorry I couldn’t save him. It all happened so fast. We must have ventured too far, because the Nazis were everywhere. They chased us down like dogs. I heard gun shots, and then I turned and saw John firing back at them. He told me to keep running, but I should have stayed with him.

She sat beside him, and took his hand in hers.

     You did what you had to do, I’m sure.

     I promise I’ll find him, even if it kills me.

     He’s gone. Let him be.

     I can’t give up that easily. I owe it to you—to him.

     Those soldiers could still be out there. We need to stay close by and hope they don’t find us. Now get some rest.

She helped him up from the table, and walked his weary body into his room to lay him down. He stopped her before she could leave.

     Where are you going?

     Just down to the creek. I’ll be back before dark.

     Be careful.

Marla stripped naked and waded into the creek. She gingerly washed away the blood and pus from her scrapes while she angrily whispered incomprehensible words.

In the blurry hours of morning she had found John’s body. He was twisted awkwardly like a rag doll that had fallen from a tree. His eyes were wide open looking up towards the heavens and flinched not when the flies landed on them.

There was no evidence of a struggle, not the trampled forest of soldiers, not a fight for love and life, but a crumpled corpse with a seemingly harmless hole in its head, and miles of nothing as witness.

She felt very little in that moment, too surreal for her to comprehend. She could only notice that his body was no different than the mossy log it rested near. She would not bury him with her bare hands instead she would let him be the decomposing marker for whomever carried out such an ugly deed. That person would have to pass that way again, and they would be met with the stench of their actions.

In the cool waters of the creek she lay, letting her anger and desperation drink her in. It was Alex who had taken her husband, whether it be the truth or not meant little to her now. Her wrath was all she had left, and it would be known to him.

When she returned to the cottage Alex was sleeping. She stood in his doorway and watched his unconscious body, her bottom lip quivered like a weakened dam. She wanted to tear into his flesh and rip him limb from limb. And it could have easily been done in that moment. Her hands trembled with the rage of armies.

And there was such self-hatred that spat up from her boiling gut. To be the fool who had underestimated the stranger was unacceptable.

She wanted to end it all in one flash of violence, but that would be too merciful for him. His suffering would have to be ageless, remembered as a stain spread out through time like the rusted ugliness of dried blood.

continued in part 9…

Wildflowers: part 7

The day John and Alex went back into the forest was soaked in a steaming heat. However, it was cooler in the dark of the trees. Freed from the harassment of the sun, both men gave themselves over to the burden of silence. Like stones on their shoulders, the silence made crooked their backs and scuffled their feet. All they could do was put one foot in front of the other, neither dreaming, nor reasoning with their stirring thoughts. Their eyes open only to see.

There was an understanding about the two men, knowing that if they got far enough away from the moral lines they judge from, and if an unwilling hand could be steadied, a man could leave the forest alone that day.

Since he was old enough to understand the concept of time, John thought of an hour as a perfect circle. Sixty minutes was an innate feeling of perfection. He never understood it, but walking through the woods that afternoon it was all he could try to understand, as he counted the moments passing. The old veteran, the wounded dog he was, had only once felt this way before, while held in the bloody gaze of war.

Alex was from a place in the world where cities and towns teetered on the top of coal mines. On a clear day’s view, he could see the petrified mouth of a dead mine from his boyhood window. All the young people would gather at the mouth of the mine to feel its cool breath on hot summer days. The older people wouldn’t dare approach it if not to shoe the kids away, because they believed the rumors that so many men died in its caverns.

He could only think of that view from his mother’s window as we watched John stumble ahead of him.

Both men were waiting for an undefined moment in the dark between impulse and instinct, where even ghosts won’t go. Only one of them had to stop and look at the other to know when they’ve arrived at such a place.

On the first day of spring Marla went down to the creek to do her laundry again, and Alex wandered off to find her.

This time he didn’t worry about startling her.

     Good morning.

He said, without notice of the day itself.

     Good morning.

She said, filling buckets for her clothes.

     It’s the first day of spring.

     I didn’t know that. It’s a relief to know winter is over.

     I started reading that book you left in the kitchen the other day. I hope you don’t mind.

     Of course not, do you like it?

     Yes, I particularly like the story of the painter who had lost the will to live, so his wife took up painting. She painted nothing but portraits of him dying, and they were so beautiful and honest, and became so well received she surpassed him, succeeding where he had failed.

     I know that story. I’ve read it several times.

     What’s your favorite?

     Maybe that one, or maybe the one about the Princess and the Prince. Have you read it yet?

     No, not yet.

     May I spoil it?

     Yes, I hate surprises.

     Okay, well…

Marla never looked up from kneading her laundry as she told the story.

…the Prince and Princess had perfect lives, just like the fairy tales. Everything was well thought of up to, but not including the Princes’ right leg.

     Why not his right leg?

     Are you sure you’d like me to spoil it?

     Yes.

Alex pulled a pack of cigarettes from his inside pocket, and lit one. He didn’t offer Marla any.

     Fine, the poor Prince walked with a painful limp from a terrible accident he had as a child, and it broke the Princess’ heart to know that no matter how much she loved her husband, she would never understand his pain. The Princess, wanting to prove her love for him, had one of her maids break her leg, so that she too would walk with a limp for the rest of her life.

Alex took a long thoughtful pull from his cigarette while he watched Marla.

He asked:

     What do you think of that story?

     Why do you care?

     Because I want to understand you. I just want someone to talk to other than myself. I’m growing mad with boredom.

Marla was growing tired of Alex. He had been making visits with her more frequently, and she felt him inching closer towards indulging his temptations. She decided in that instant to test his intentions, to find out if he really wanted what he was after.

     Do you want me to answer that question you asked the last time you found me here?

     What question?

     You asked me if I still loved my husband.

Marla sat down on some nearby rocks.

     Do you have a cigarette?

     No, we smoked the last pack two weeks ago.

     What about the one in your hand?

     I can’t give it to you.

     Why not?

     Because I’d be breaking a promise to a friend.

     I see.

Marla picked up a small stick and scratched thoughtlessly in the sand. Alex sat down beside her, draped his arm across her back, and gently pulled her towards him. She was close enough for him to smell her. He thought of the many nights he wondered what that smell might be. He reached his hand to her hair, and felt it slide through his fingers. Through the silk of her hair he found the soft pale skin of her neck, and uncovered it to the sun’s gaze. A small freckle peeked out from behind her silver chain.

She didn’t recognize herself in his touch, one lost to John so long ago. It wasn’t John’s fault, such things get lost in love over time, but they are always missed, those obsessive touches from desperate lovers.

She knew she could have anything she wanted from Alex in that moment, and though she refused to act on it, it was enough to make her smile.

Her grin lasted for only a moment as she stared into her scribbles in the sand. She felt his lips against her neck, and hesitated before standing.

     I don’t like how brazen you are with me.

     I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.

Marla straightened herself and picked up her buckets to leave.

     I just want a friend. Your husband is no conversation, and talking to myself is getting maddening. I just want to talk to someone about……everything.

     We’re all lonely.

     Yes, but you get to whisper to someone in the night. I hear you, sometimes I even press my ear against the wall to feel for a moment like you’re talking to me.

     I want to say this politely, because I’m not offended by your actions. But I think you need to leave here, and find a better place.

     I can’t go back out there. I don’t know what will find me.

She saw a real fear in his eyes, which prompted her to loosen her grip from the buckets.

John recognized the look in Marla’s eyes, one’s own reflection of fear looking back at him. He knew in that instant she was vulnerable.

     I haven’t had the chance to tell anyone what happened to me yet. If you’re really going to send me back out into the unknown, where the war will surely find me, at least let me tell my story to one person.

     I don’t want to know who you are; just tell me, did you see pain, and suffering, and death?

     Yes.

     Did you do things you never imagined doing?

     I did things I’m ashamed of, and I did them with hate in my heart. To kill with such hatred is so satisfying it could almost be mistaken for love.

     Such is war.

     You know nothing of war.

Marla put her buckets down, and reached into Alex’s inside pocket to pull out his cigarettes. She lit herself one, and meandered over to the creek.

     I’m sorry for your loneliness. I’m sorry for your pain, and I’m sorry those things led you to believe I could be something for you. If we were in Paris you’d want me no more than any other man stealing glances at me.

     That’s not true.

     Yes it is. When was the last time you looked someone in the eye that wasn’t me?

     I just want a friend.

    You have my friendship, but you want more.

     And so do you. That’s why you want me to stay.

     I want you to stay because you keep us alive.

     And why can’t I be more?

     Because I decide if you should get more, and want like yours is dangerous in a place like this.

Alex contorted his mouth to hide his welling disappointment.  Marla made sure not to look at him as she hoisted her buckets and started up the path.

     Love is a burden.

She said to herself.

     Sometimes it’s as light as a feather, and sometimes it’s so heavy it could break your back.

John and Alex’s clothes stuck to their sweaty bodies, and their rifles were getting heavy. They had marched through the woods for miles, getting lost briefly, and forced to communicate with each other to find their way back. The sun was just starting to lean back and get comfortable in the west, when they finally stopped.

Alex drank from his canteen with both hands to hide their trembling. John leaned on his rifle and waited.

     Did you know your parents, Alex?

     Only my mother.

     Were you close to her?

     No, I didn’t see her much.

     Both of my parents raised me.  I watched them as I grew from a child into a man. My whole understanding of the world came from my observations of their lives. But I never saw them in pain, or scared, or broken.  When I first experienced war, it made me wish I had seen my parents more intimately, so I might have a better understanding of the death around me. But there is nothing they could have done to prepare me for it.

     Such is war.

     Have you ever killed someone?

     No.

     You can justify it, but you will never understand it. It’s like a bad dream you could never wake up from.

Alex felt the cold breath of the mine brush against his cheeks, and raised his rifle.

     How do you justify this, Alex?

     War comes in many forms. No one is spared from its conflicts.

John dropped his rifle to the ground and raised his hands.

     I will not run.

The men studied each others features.  Alex noticed the scare above John’s eye.  John noticed the vacancy in Alex’s eyes.

     Why do you let me do this?

Alex said, as John inched closer.

     War comes in many forms. It can’t be outrun.

He closed his eyes, and in a breathless silence, carefully squeezed the trigger. He heard John’s body fall before the echo of the gun shot had finished spreading through the forest.

He tilted his head upwards and opened his eyes, in a refusal to look at the body. Its presence was felt sprawled unnaturally on the forest bed. It killed everything within its reach.

Alex turned and stumbled for several yards, then collapsed.

 

continued in part 8…