Instructor: Megan Weiskopf
Where the Blackbird Fusses
Where the Blackbird Fusses
Will noticed the new man in the trenches because everything about him was so achingly familiar and so foreign at the same time. He looked normal, and he wore the right uniform, but it was too clean, too perfectly pressed, and too unblemished. His hair was still at an even crew cut when everyone else's was starting to grow out. And he looked so young, but so old at the same time, an implacable optical illusion.
Of course, Will didn't have a lot of time to think about these things, because baggy, humanoid figures roiled across no-man's-land and he had to cock his rifle and fire.
At the end of the day, his weapons cried, dripping red, but Will didn't. He had stopped crying a few months ago. Maybe it was because he threw up so much of the water he drank, or maybe it was because the food had run out of salt to fuel those tears. He was grateful for the lack of bleariness; without troubles, he could see the strange man much more clearly at night.
And he came to Will first, surprisingly, when they were both curled up in the same trough. He held a flask up to the boy's face. "Do you drink?"
Will's tongue felt sticky. The man spoke loud, but no one else seemed to hear him. Will was inclined to lie, to keep him there, because his eyes pierced through the firelit dark like twin brown lanterns, and in the mud his cleanliness looked beautiful, ethereal. He was the kind of soldier you saw on ENLIST TODAY! posters, with Anglican features and a slight smile. Plain enough to be a comrade but sharp enough to be a dream. That alone was inebriating.
But Will had been taught the value of honesty. He said, "I promised my mum I wouldn't. She's Baptist."
The strange man nodded. He didn't look disappointed, not quite. His expression was unreadable.
Will took the chance to say, "I'm Will."
"Pleased to meet you, Will."
"What's your name?"
He waved his hand, as if shooing away a joke Will had just told, and he didn't answer.
They sat there for a while, the strange man humming softly along to the sound of bombs cracking in the distance. Then, he took a swig of the flask himself, Adam's apple pumping, and tucked it into one of the pockets of his British infantry jacket. He leaned over Will and pressed a kiss to his forehead that left a tingling imprint for hours afterwards, then got up and left.
Will's mum had kissed him on the forehead on the day he shipped off for the Great War. He'd been holding a sack with warm bread from their oven, as if he was a schoolboy being sent to a new day of learning. She had told him to make her proud. To make England proud. But, most of all, to come back alive with all his ten fingers and all his ten toes. Will had rolled his eyes at that.
The next morning in the trenches, he saw the man again, but the man didn't seem to notice him; instead, he was drinking with two others from Will's unit, including a pudgy boy, Pat, the only soldier younger than Will in a mile's radius—only living one, anyhow. When the strange man offered Pat a mug of Lord-knew-what-alcohol, the boy took it straight away and chugged it down. His face was flush with new experiences. Jealousy roared in Will's stomach, and it was unlike anything he could comprehend.
Why did he have to be so weak?
That night, no stranger came to talk to him. He did see the man near Pat sometimes as days passed. He helped Pat get his boots on when the boy's hands were shaking too badly to do it himself. He squeezed Pat's shoulder as a kind father would when the sun rose and a new day of fighting began.
Almost a week later, Pat pulled a grenade and didn't throw it. He stared at the thing as if it was alien and frozen in place. No one yelled at him in time before it exploded, along with him and a handful of the trench's wooden supports, into crimson-spattered dust. Will knew he ought to feel awful. But he felt a little content, a little satisfied among the awful, and that made him feel even worse.
The strange man had been there when Pat died, but he didn't have to see him; his head was tilted back as he drank from his flask. That was probably for the better, because he seemed new, and watching death let worms into your brain.
But the man didn't turn his attention back to Will. Instead, he focused on consoling young Pat's brother, a guy with the same yellow hair as Pat but a lankier frame and more sunken cheeks. He helped the guy drown his sorrows in brown gin.
A morning later, that too was kaput, because Pat's brother put a shotgun in his own mouth and fired. Will took initiative after that. He found the man, standing hazardously tall above the trench lines, and asked him how he was doing.
In return, the man cupped his face, making him feel like a kid again, wading through warm summer pools and eating soft cookies instead of stale biscuits and old meat. "I'm doing just fine, Will. You?"
He remembers my name. "I'm alright. I never did catch what you were called, though."
The strange man's hands left Will's face. He cocked his head. "You should get going. Look out there."
He pointed, and, as if on command, beige figures rose from behind the yards of fence and leaking bodies. Will ran back through the tunnels, face burning, because he couldn't shake the feeling that he had said something horribly wrong.
The strange man spent time with older soldiers after that, and passed his flask around a group of bearded fellows who, in the next assault, stopped like statues in the middle of no-man's-land, not moving forward, their weapons lowered, like four pristine dolls in a diorama before they got gunned down. It was bizarre, from the accounts Will heard. He tried to ask the man about what had happened, but couldn't find him.
More time passed. Will wrote a letter home. His pencil broke halfway through it. He gnawed stale bread, thinking in bittersweets of the rolls his mum had given him before he shipped off, steaming out of the oven with heat and heart and life. He curled up in his makeshift bed and listened to the strange man tousle with someone else in a lean-to, that "someone else" being dead the next week when he panicked in lieu of getting his gas mask on.
Somehow, against all reason, the man's uniform remained immaculate. It never tore or bled or frayed. He stood out more and more against the fading, rotating ranks of the trench, and Will goggled at how clean the man's skin was, how sharp his hair. His socks were probably whole instead of the tattered, clumpy mush on Will's feet. Will wanted to reach out and touch that face, put it in a locket so he could take it home and show his family and use it to convince himself that war was beautiful.
He decided to test the man, one day. He felt bad about it. How dare he play tricks with someone so kind, mysterious, alluring? But as he drank another of his brown alcohols, Will walked past him and bumped him on the shoulder hard enough to spill some of the glass's contents.
"Sorry!" he mumbled. He was acting, but he meant it.
The man didn't look upset. He glanced down at the liquid trickling over his buttoned breast pocket and flicked it off with one finger, the stain coming completely undone with his touch. Will watched in perplexed rapture. There wasn't even a dampness there anymore, and the uniform was dry as bone, as if he hadn't spilled at all. Will couldn't play too coy, not when he was so amazed. "How did you do that?"
The man looked away from his drinking buddies and met Will's eyes. The next time gunfire boomed, it felt like it was made for them, to frame the unreadable face Will looked into. The man said, "It's simple. I don't get attached."
Will blinked. "But your jacket should have stained."
The man blinked back. "Didn't you hear me, Will?"
"But—" Will could feel his face reddening. He never did that anymore. He never did anything anymore, except lace up his shoes and reload cartridges and tighten the straps of his gas mask.
The strange man smiled at him, pleasant and understanding. He patted the spot on the ground next to himself. "Sit with us, Will. Drink."
Will didn't drink, but he did sit down, and tried to avoid the urge to rest his heavy head on the strange man's pristine shoulder. He listened to laughter and hushed conversations underlying the sound of gravel on boots, knives through skin, and bullets through air. For the first time in a long time, he thought he might be able to fall asleep.
When he woke up, he was in the same spot, but his head rested on the lap of the stranger. A powder-hazed sun poked through the outcroppings of dirt and stone. Will shot up straight. "What station?"
"No station for now," said the man, beautifully ancient. "A few men mutinied last night. Paperwork needs to be done, and the squadron's regrouping."
Will didn't need to ask to know that the mutineers were last night's drinking buddies.
He offered Will his silver flask again, and Will turned it down again.
"If your mum never sees you, how will she know?" the man teased.
Will wanted to slap him, but his sense of respect was too great. Instead, he asked, "What's your name?"
The strange man left quickly after that.
It kept happening. Will saw men throw their weapons aside and run straight into the enemy's bloody embrace. He saw a medic nearly bash his own head in half before someone else stopped him, made him go wet-eyed to the next moaning patient. Will woke up wailing in the middle of nights, tasting and feeling phantom blood, and he'd hear people running away from the battlefield, voices low and desperate as they disappeared from the front lines. Few were caught. Fewer were tried. He wondered, if he got close to the weepers and the suicidal bodies, if he would be able to smell gin on their lifeless mouths.
The next drinking mate died of a sudden seizure. After that, Will got a letter back from his mum, a loving and uncomfortable letter that told him his father had a tumor behind his ear. The sun came up and down the sky, buoying, bouncing, and Will fired his gun and breathed tainted air and lived.
Eventually, Will was shuddering, and the night was so cold it threatened to burn him alive. He knew he would see the stranger the moment he woke, but the alternative was worse. His hold was empty. He was far from the youngest soldier now, but the young ones kept rotating in and out, grave by unmarked, airborne grave. The old ones got promoted or retired or discharged. The stranger with the clean skin and Roman nose was Will's only constant anymore.
And he was there already, as Will quaked out of his sleep. He helped Will sit up and held Will's shoulder as the boy puked into the dirt. Then, he said, "Tough night?"
"When is it not?"
The stranger nodded, the grim nod of a man who could relate, but Will thought maybe he couldn't. "Want a drink?" Somewhere, in a blackness beneath the stranger's sparkling eyes, in the undertow of his words, he was actually saying, "Want to go home?"
And Will did. He did so badly.
But he refused. So the strange man took a long, hearty inhale of his flask, then kissed Will's mouth, forcing both of their lips to part together. Warm, foggy gin and ice-cold saliva wormed its way over Will's tongue. His whole body buzzed on impact.
The next dawn, before the bulk of the trench's men woke up, Will had abandoned his hat, rifle, mask, and torn-up poker cards, and he was running. He was running the way that terrified, livid men shredded themselves through the barbed wire of no-man's-land, but he was running in the opposite direction, away and away and away. His brother must be five years old by now. His dad must be dead. The battlefields yearned to rotate, yearned to spit him out and replace him with new crop to spoil and rip apart. He had been here too long.
ITS OUR FLAG FIGHT FOR IT WORK FOR IT
His legs scaled the tunnels of the trenches and burned like bright fire. His mind was drugged, inebriated, cracked mad. He didn't intend to ever return here. The Lord could reach down and turn the burnt bodies into paradise and providence, lift Pat from the dead and make him a cherubim, and still he would keep running.
YOUR KING AND COUNTRY WANT YOU NEED YOU ARE YOU
An arm slammed into Will and nearly cut him in half. He panted, guts churning, as the clean, deft hands of the stranger held him in place, uniform stiffer than armor, and the man shouted loud enough to alert the whole camp to Will's sin. Desertion. Already, he saw lanterns booming like bombs boomed a mile away. Will would have screamed, but attraction enough was on its way to him. The strange man's grip was firm around him. Eyes were black, nails trimmed neatly, but they dug into Will's insides and uprooted betrayal like weeds torn out of trench dirt.
For the first time in years, the first time since Will had shot his first man dead, he cried. He sobbed in Britain's red white and blue, and he sobbed in gold and brown and green. His pain became a living animal, a living cavern, diamonds and rubies and raw silver trailing down his cheeks. "You promised," Will garbled. The strange man's arms around him, even as they pinned him in place for a commanding officer to arrive, were warm. They were an embrace. "You said I could go home."
"I did say that."
"So let me go."
"No."Don't cry, don't cry, thought Will, but a new onslaught of white-hot poured from his eyes. "You lied. You lied! Let me go!"
When he squirmed, in the distance, more gunfire went off. The stranger turned Will around to face him. All the lights around them were dim, the feebly rising sun was dimmer, and dimmest of all was that familiar, concave glow of the strange man's beauty. This time, he wasn't unreadable. He looked almost sad.
He lifted one hand to Will's angry, recoiling face and smoothed a tear away from his cheek. Like with the man's uniform, Will felt his skin dry instantly, all residue of crying gone. The red receded from the bottom of his eye.
And he also felt a pang inside his head, something visceral, and he could almost see the stain spreading across his mind, suctioning in his sobs. His brain had stains all over, red and black, dirt and biscuit crumbs, and he thought about those pink coils lashing out to wake him screaming from his bed in the middle of nights that were never quiet. I don't get attached, the man had said. But Will was human. He couldn't forget just because he wanted to.
As the stranger tidied up the rest of Will's cascading tears, Will asked, for the last time, "What's your name?" The man replied softly: "I think I'll finally get one, one of these days. Folks have started tossing around the word shell-shock."
Later, when Will was bound up and placed in front of a firing squad, he would cry again, and there would be nothing but the blindfold tied tight around his head to muffle his tears as bullets hollowed him out. But for now, his face was clean. The sun was rising—and smoke was also rising, thin and wide, as if the whole battlefield was bread in his mum's oven that he had slacked off and let burn.
i hold a glass up to the light and
watch the way fluorescents curve
to little hourglasses, red and white and
slipping off the edges of the home
we built with dirt and peeling nails
for our first children.
i feel the negative space
between my ribs where
sky was supposed to be, where
we grew up drinking from gold
rather than a father's sweat-stained fists
rather than a mother's wrung milk.
i watch the line where grass turns
into concrete, where shoes meet steps and
the harsh backpack strap of pilgrimage
meets my skin, where youth
meets the chopping block and
i meet the air.
i hear the cannon asteroids slam behind me
as the door shuts, whistles through my rags
and runs a hand through my hair
to tear it upwards, look at the sun, son, why
did you forsake our welcome! mat and
scorn our open arms, our figs and fruit bowls?
i walk into blasphemy, abomination, into
the tragedy i'll love until
the day love breaks my brain open and
scars my temple, throws my libations
onto the sidewalk where family
traded empathy for piety.
The Dark Side of the Playground
The Dark Side of the Playground
The sound of classmates playing and teachers chatting rang in my ears—blind sheep, all of them. A beaming and joyful sun crested over their happy faces. Kids laughed on the swing set, hid under the playground steps, swept through the monkey bars in skillful, squealing competitions. Most of the second grade—myself included—spent their recess time here, in the nice, bright, happy part of the playground, where peace was an absolute, life was colorful, and pain was as far away as the heavens were from earth. A blissful ignorance, a deaf paradise, a sinless, soulless existence wafted through them all.
But there was another side to it. A dark side.
Past the seesaw, through the sandpit, under a plastic tunnel. Over and around and between. If you could then survive the searing heat of the metal slide, and an artfully crafted tumble through a grove of trees, you found yourself there, where the laws of men and gods mattered to no one, where danger lurked in every hollow and schoolhouse rules were stomped on by grimy light-up Sketchers. Welcome, young and old, cootie-boy and tutu-girl, to the Dark Side.
Few ventured here. Most of the kids my age barely knew it existed. Some of the older students braved it in order to take hits of the banned substance—bubble gum—and others to use their phones or trade packets of chips. There were different territories in this area, each one more dangerous than the last; fourth graders and tree-climbers and video-gamers and a dozen other clans among the woodchips. Every tooth was sharp and unflossed, every hand scarred by paper cuts and branded by accidental droplets of hot glue. The kids were cutthroat here. Anarchy was the only game.
There was a pathway between the tire swing and the swinging pole that belonged to no clan. It was the no-man's-land of the Dark Side, where newcomers approached if they wanted a glimpse of the shady life but didn't have the courage to swear fealty to the abyss. It was also where trades were made and bargains struck, where kids of all grades came to make deals on seeing test scores and exchanging glitter pens. It was where I was going now.
I was usually a nice girl. A good girl. My mom did my hair in braids every morning. I went to school immaculately dressed, got good grades and won ribbon stickers to showcase my excellence. I tied my shoes in bunny-knots and did as told, because I, unlike the ravenous felons around me, listened to the way the world worked. But not today. Today I was venturing into the Dark Side of the playground for a very special cause. Leaves and wood chips crunched under my shoes. Birds chirped in the trees nearby. The squealing of children echoed behind me, and I longed to return to the good, safe life. But I could not. Not yet. I had a mission to complete.
The pathway was dangerous. Darksiders more wily than I could trick me into giving them a yogurt squeeze at lunch. And there was always the possibility of a teacher catching us and giving us time-outs if they saw us misbehaving—the justice system was corrupt like that. But I had to be brave.
I found him leaning against a rock wall. Kenny Foster of the second grade was more used to the Dark Side of the playground than I was, but I was smarter. I was the smartest kid in my whole grade. If anyone could bear the crushing danger, it was me.
I stomped my foot down to alert him. His ebony muss of hair turned my way. He pocketed the fidget spinner he had been playing with lazily and stood up straighter.
"You wanted to meet with me?" he said. It was clear from the disdain in his eyes that he thought I was new to the Dark Side and only wasting his time.
"Yes." I leaned in. It was as if the entire malicious forest was towering over me, leering, watching, waiting. Speaking came in hazarded breaths. "I know you took a second candy, Kenny," I whispered, and almost grinned when he turned sheet pale.
His whole young face fell in shock. Kenny goggled at me, astonished. "How did you—"
"Don't think I'll reveal my secrets. You took a second candy from the jar this morning after winning the trivia question. You're only allowed to take one."
The disdain was gone from Kenny's face, replaced with panic. His beady little eyes were wide. It was all so sudden. So delightful. It was funny how quick the courageous fell. "Please don't tell Miss Davis! I really thought no one saw! Oh, please don't tell her!"
"I won't …" A sly look edged onto my face. This was it. My victory. My time in the limelight of the dark. "Under one condition."
"Anything! Name it!"
"You give me one of your candies."
Poor Kenny looked torn. I felt bad to pressure him so, but it was the way business worked. "Why? You can have anything else, anything."
"I want the candy, Kenny."
Kenny still looked reluctant.
"Come on, Kenny," I pressed, "The candy, or I tell Miss Davis. And you wouldn't last a minute in time-out."
I held out my hand. Finally Kenny relented and placed a Jolly Rancher in my palm. I then ran away, back into the safe, happy side of the playground. The bad kids of the forest faded into nothingness, and the swirling joy of mundane kindergarteners and goody-two-shoes teachers enveloped me once more.
I closed my fist and grinned, quickly slipping the candy into my pocket and skipping back out to the monkey bars. I was quite a good bargainer. A queen among kings. Who ever said nice girls couldn't handle the Dark Side?