“They’re back!” we hissed over our kitchen fences. “Someone’s got to stop them! Something must be done!”
Deborah Dancy, Winter #16, 2015. Charcoal, gesso, and acrylic on paper, 50 x 38 in.
Sister was at the stove looking down into the steaming pot.
“Did you get any sleep,” I said, “with that idiot yammering all night?”
“What?” she said.
“That idiot,” I said. “Didn’t she drive you crazy?”
For a long time Sister didn’t even seem to hear me. She clunked an arm-long wooden spoon into the pot and thunked it sullenly against the sides. “No,” she said. And then she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The first we knew of the soldiers was their bellowing from the snow-silvered hillsides, then the thundering of their boots. They poured through our cemeteries, our stone gates, down our streets. They filled our alabaster plazas with their ignorant grunts. “They’re back!” we hissed over our kitchen fences. “Someone’s got to stop them! Something must be done!” But it was already too late. Our police were facedown in the snow, hyena-eyed. Our governors were naked on the hotel steps, their genitals shrinking in the sharp wind.
The idiot moaned and moaned below my window. I couldn’t see her. The power was out, the street an assortment of lopsided shadows and moon-glints. But I had heard her coming: the smacks of her balled-up feet on the paving stones (she didn’t even have the sense to put on shoes!) and that throat-mumbling she always did. And then, just below my window, I heard the ice hiss as her feet went aloft, an instant of silence, a whumph and then an “Oh! Oh! Ohhh!” That’s how the moaning started. Long cow moans that sometimes wavered into sorrowful cat yowls. Like no one had ever suffered. Like she was the only one suffering on earth. “Shut up!” I shouted. “Shut up, you idiot! Don’t you know what’s going to happen!” But she just kept moaning. Like the world had stopped. Like everyone had to sit in a silent circle around her pain. So I put my fingers in my ears and slumped to the floor beneath my window. I waited for the clicks of guns, and the soldiers’ brick-hard voices. I waited for the muzzle in the ribs, the barked final warning, the stuttering light, the blasting. But nothing happened. After a while the street was just quiet. I guess she went away.
The soldiers started talking about home as soon as they were among us. “I’m so happy to be home,” they would say as they kicked down our doors. They would roust us out of our beds so that they could take their naps. “How this brings me back,” they would say. They’d set our bath taps roaring, drop into our brimful tubs and call out the names of our daughters. “I’d forgotten how beautiful this all is,” they would say.
The song was so loud it would blast my words to sonic dust, and the soldiers would continue walking, as if they had heard nothing, as if they hadn’t noticed that the sky had cracked from horizon to zenith.
That very first day I had a dozen soldiers in my tavern, gesturing for beer and crusty rolls with their rifles.
“Yes, sir,” I said, filling their steins. “Yes, sir,” I said, placing a plate heaped with rolls on each of their tables.
Some nights the idiot’s moaning got so loud it echoed against the moon, and pinged from star to star. I would cover my head with my pillow. I would stuff my ears with oiled paper, but nothing helped. It was worst of all when soldiers walked along our street from their barracks to the hula houses or back again. I would hear their grunted jokes, the rattle and clink of their dangling weaponry, and then the idiot’s voice rising into a sort of song that was like a deformation of the whole world. The moonlight went ocher with it. The walls of the buildings would suppurate a thick fluid that glinted in bruise colors as it oozed along the frozen streets. Lying on my bed, I would seem to myself to be nothing but a desiccated carcass—salt-white bones, leathery flesh-shreds, loosened yellow teeth—the mattress beneath me crusty with the custard of my decomposition. The song? Not so much a song as the sense going out of every word in every language. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I would throw open my window and shout to the soldiers, “Why don’t you stop her! Why don’t you make her shut up!” But the song was so loud it would blast my words to sonic dust, and the soldiers would continue walking, as if they had heard nothing, as if they hadn’t noticed that the sky had cracked from horizon to zenith, as if nothing mattered but their crude mirth, their anticipation of what was about to happen, or their memories of what just had. And I would have no choice but to fling myself belly-down onto my bed—palms flat against my stuffed ears—and hum prayers into my pillow. But it would do no good.
The soldiers told me this was not the real war. The soldiers told me the real war was someplace else and they had come here so that they could feel the world was not one long death. “You all think we are evil,” they said. “We know that. But you know nothing about us. You know nothing about the hell we come from and the hell we will return to. You don’t even know this is paradise. You live in paradise and you don’t deserve it.” The soldiers asked me to fill up their steins and I did. They asked me to bring in my nieces and I did that too. Sometimes the soldiers would lie down on the floor and sleep with the stocks of their rifles between their thighs and the muzzles beside their cheeks, cradled in their open palms. They would stay like that until the floor went blue with dawn light. Then they would apologize and leave.
“You think I care that you can’t sleep?” Sister said. “You think I should even listen to the noises of your mouth when you give my daughters to those animals?” She was slicing goat into cubes on the bloody block. She waved her knife in front of my nose. “You think I shouldn’t slide this blade between your ribs?” She went back to her cutting. The chop, chop of steel against wood. The trembling of her elbows as she sliced sinew from bone. Now she was talking to me without even looking in my direction. “You are lucky we are living under the soldiers’ law. You are lucky that the soldiers prevent me from doing everything that is right and everything that I want with all my heart.”
“Didn’t you hear her?” I said. “Didn’t you hear her yowling under the moon?”
Sometimes, when the soldiers walked by without doing anything, I would want to run down into the street myself and kick her with my boots. I would want her to break into pieces and I would want to kick those pieces down the street and into the river. But I never left my room. It was too cold. And I was afraid the soldiers would catch me, that I would be the one kicked into pieces. But also my body never lost the hope that it might still get to sleep. My dreams would seem so close. So very, very close. And sometimes I would open my eyes and find that I had indeed passed through a dream. But only for a minute. Or for a handful of seconds.
“Why you want to kill a poor old lady?”
And then it turned out that the idiot had in fact broken into pieces. I would be walking down the street, and there was one of her feet sticking out from under a butter churn. Wasn’t that her hair hanging from the ginkgo branches? And wasn’t that her face, staring up at me from the snow heap, her eyes like doll eyes, only following me as I made my way from one end of the street to the other? And then the wind would blow hard enough to rip slates off the roofs, and the inches of snow would turn into feet and yards, and I would think, “That’s it! Now I’m rid of her forever!” But always that yowling in the night. Every night. Every single night. Always that asking to be pitied above everything pitiable on this earth.
“Why you want to kill a poor old lady?” the soldier said.
“She’s not an old lady,” I said.
“Even worse,” said the soldier.
“I don’t know, maybe she is. It’s hard to see her.”
“But still?” the soldier insisted.
“Because she’s driving me crazy.”
“Because she was there when you put out her father’s eyes. She was there when you raped her sister. She was hiding under the bed. She saw everything. She knows everything you have done. And she wants you dead.”
The soldier didn’t say anything for a long time. His eyes shook, as if someone were knocking him on the side of the head. Then his pupils expanded until they were shiny black peas. Then they shrank to pencil dots and he told me how much money he wanted. Then he said he would only do it if I gave him a bottle of whiskey. “Okay,” I said. And when it turned out he wanted to drink the whiskey first, I helped him. Maybe I drank half the bottle. And when we finally went out to find the woman, I couldn’t remember where I had last seen her. I tried to find my way home, but I couldn’t do that either. Finally we came to an alley. The sky had already gone charcoal gray, and my head was hurting, and it was clear the streets would soon be tremulous with dimness. So now was the time.
“Down there,” I said.
“Where?” said the soldier.
“Down there.” I pointed down the alley.
“Just fucking fire your gun! She’s there! You can’t fucking miss her!”
The soldier filled the alley with light and noise.
Wood flecks, ice splinters, bits of brick, and resolidified particles of lead pattered minutely onto the frozen snow.
“There,” said the soldier. “Are you happy?”
“I heard that yowling last night,” Sister said. I told her she didn’t. “Of course, I did,” she said. She released a handful of chicken feathers onto the bluish breeze.
“That’s impossible,” I said.
“Only it wasn’t really yowling. It was beautiful.” Her apron was streaked with blood. Blood was still dripping from the severed neck. She released another handful of feathers and they flew across the yard. “It was so gentle,” she said. “It was a lullaby. I felt she was lying right beside me, and crooning so quietly into my ear.”
I hadn’t heard her in weeks. Not that I had slept any better. Not that my nights weren’t a form of cancer afflicting the world of fact.
“That wasn’t her,” I said. I hadn’t heard her in weeks. Not that I had slept any better. Not that my nights weren’t a form of cancer afflicting the world of fact. Not that I didn’t greet every new day with a gasp of fear.
“Yes, it was. I know it was. I could feel the warmth of her breath. I could feel the tiny clouds that puffed from her lips.”
“No,” I said. “You were dreaming.”
“She was singing me to sleep. She was singing that nothing mattered. That it was okay just to leave.”
The air was so cold the breeze had turned blue. The white feathers drifted yellowly across the snow and out the garden gate into the street.
“That never happened,” I said.
The real war was lost. The soldiers were called back to the front in the hope that they might be able to reverse fate at the last minute. When the hindmost of their trains had loosed its diminishing cry amidst our silvered hills, we found more than one soldier in a barn, swaying silently from a rope, or in a musty cellar, with a hole blown into his temple and a note pinned to his chest saying, “Forgive me. I couldn’t face it. Goodbye.” And in the coming weeks, letters arrived for my nieces, detailing bitter defeats, penal servitude, forced marches, and the clamor of firing squads in the courtyards below. Letters that had clearly been entrusted to bribed guards, or pushed with pleading glances into the hands of passersby. Letters signed hastily, in a quavery scrawl, “As always,” “Fondly,” “Love.”
I didn’t hear her voice again until the snow had been blown away, the earth had grown soft underfoot, and the breezes were fragrant with acorn dust and flowing water. I had decided to escape the city, and found myself walking beside a yellow field, out past the last of the filling stations. She was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree. Catching my eye, she patted the space beside her. I will never know why, but the instant our gazes met, I walked straight toward her, my boots ripping at the grass with every step, my breath going fluttery, my knees weak. Once I had taken a seat at her side, I was not sure I would ever be able to rise. She was singing. And her song was just as Sister had described it. A song of grief, but not for what we had lost. A song for everything that was beautiful and might never be.
Stephen O’Connor is the author of Created Equal, a novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, forthcoming from Viking Penguin, and of Here Comes Another Lesson, a collection of short fiction. His story “Next to Nothing” was selected by Jennifer Egan for Best American Short Stories 2014. He teaches in the MFA programs of Columbia and Sarah Lawrence.