Image by Fiona Dalwood via flickr.

Pushed through committee room door same seat and desk same mic whose sharp black bud was stuck there yet again to coax or spirit or otherwise prize from his lips who knows what putatively incriminating shit for the gathered senators to smear the walls with and point at the walls and send a photo of the walls back home to the ravening over-it un-pay-tree-aughts in advance of the campaign season aw-shucksing—Well lookee here, will you just take a LOOK at all this SHIT!—and gavel, bang, it’s Vermont and Pennsylvania and the great state of South Carolina (et tu, LindZAY?) easeling photos and jabbing fingers and all the rhetorical blah blah blah (to which: ongoing prosecutions prevent), the senators trotting out the Dobermans the tub of ice the flesh pyramids of boys the boy with razors in his food the hooded boy with dangling wires and here it is at last like you knew it would be the lady soldier in high heels and sequined evening gown all gussied up and painted and how she’s clicking her tongue rear left of the mouth tchick for the camera.

* * *

You can’t hear the tchick but can’t you just tell from the wink and slantwise grin that’s the noise she’s making plus how she points at the detainee so jaunty and all, snap of the fingers, click of the tongue (snap, tchick) and points (there he is!), a woman in evening wear pointing or finger-gunning at a boy who jacks it while all the other soft dark nude boys stand on deck hooded in green polyethylene, and wouldn’t those other boys have been hearing it, too? the snap, tchick plus the fap fap of a boy jacking a semiflaccid cock plus who knows what commands or commentary from the cameraman plus the shimmery swish of sequins and the heels clicking in this last photo in the array of two dozen photos arced on their easels (and in all of these the distant muffled thunder of the eternal sandstorm enveloping the desert fortress in which they were taken), an arc of photos placed before the concentric arc of the oaken dais where the enraged senators stare out like birds long since pinioned with dull stainless docking scissors yet somehow (simple beasts that they are) coming to the knowledge of their mutilation each moment anew, even as that knowledge already slips away, the flagstones and planks underfoot in this centuries-old basement committee room creaking and only half-muffling ponderous subterranean echoes and somewhere a gavel striking wood.

* * *

“I’m a casualty.”
“In a very real sense, a casualty.”
“Life has hurt me.”
“This life!”

“It hurts, oh god—it really hurts!”

* * *

What this is about, bottom line, is really just scuffing the White House, cheap political points, you get right down to it the problem is how no one really knows what words mean these days, case in point you say quaint my god throw the word quaint into the mix and next thing they’re trying to hang around your neck stress positions twenty-hour interrogations waterboarding slapping shaking sleep adjustment light control managed hypothermia a raftful of techniques that somewhere down the line they enhanced a bit and now the senators are asking Gonzo so if this alone isn’t torture how about A plus B, is that torture? and what if we add a third term, how about now, have we crossed some sort of line yet? but all this is just hypotheticals and how can Gonzo speculate on hypotheticals, and one of the senators says, too quietly, as though only half-aware of his own words, well then how about shoving a long fat fluorescent up some boy’s ass to save on the electric? is that hypothetical, counselor?

* * *

A cinder block room in a desert fortress halfway around the world.

The sandstorms that for centuries shielded that fortress and rendered it invisible to all enemies have now buried it, annihilated it.

The fortress that we made our base in that country, there in the very cradle of civilization, has been lost to us, and in the tens and hundreds of thousands of man-hours we’ve spent searching for it since, still to this day we’ve found only: a single roll of film, these twenty-four exposures.

* * *

Gonzo has studied the photos and come to understand them, but the last photo is one that Gonzo has never truly understood—or he has, but not in a manner that he could make manifest to the committee; and so he must take it in here, now, and without fail—the tomboyish lady soldier in her evening gown, the contrast between the fancy dress and the plain, blank, and really just stupid face just blech, and how she’s clicking her tongue tchick for the camera, and the hooded boys: how along with the tchick and the fap fap and the distant muffled sandstorm they must hear as well their own shallow respiration rattling and steaming the interiors of polyethylene hoods cinched at the neck, their hearts blooming and pounding in their ears, while under or through all that they hear still other noises infiltrating the beige cinder block room from corridor and shaft and ductwork of the desert fortress, noises that twist one by one into polyethylene hoods where they unfold like paper animals—and that’s what they are—paper animals that prance and rebraid themselves until the true words branded on their rustling hides shiver off and slip into the ear canal, spiraling through the cochlea to touch receptor cells that blaze with real fire, now for all time burned inside the skull of a boy.

Which is just one more thing these senators staring down at Gonzo will never get, Gonzo’s fury at the senators matched only by his tenderness for the boys, and a protectiveness that approaches jealousy—jealousy for what the boys know that the senators cannot and will not know, that even Gonzo for all his thought and all his suffering will never know again, not in this life, no, not again (and perhaps what the boys know is no more than this: what it is to be a boy), but still there’s the lady soldier pointing, snap, tchick.

* * *

“I’m a casualty.”
“There have been many casualties of the war on terror.”

“I’m one of them.”
“I really am!”
“What do you want?”
“I’d like to know!”
“Because oh god it hurts!”
“It really, really hurts!”

* * *

Let us say it.

What we want is for Gonzo to accept what he knows in his heart and is so close to understanding with his mind; what the senators, too, know on a certain level of instinct, even if their hearts and minds are closed off to it: that it’s only in rooms like this that the best secrets are born.

* * *

Some nights
chairs stacked, cameras pushed to the wall, heads bowed and lenses capped until the next morning’s proceedings (when Gonzo and the senators will again take their places)—sometimes on such a night a paper animal wriggles up out of the floor and frisks about before one or another of the easeled photos, confused and even weeping in her excitement, thinking yet again that this is where her boy is, that she’s found the boy she was meant to share her secret with, a boy who—it happens, sometimes—is already dead, has been dead for years, now.

An animal whose boy has died will not know what to do, you see. She will slip out a drain or through a crack in the foundation and tunnel through rock and sand and search the world over for her boy.

You cannot catch the paper animal; she is gone already. But if you play your flashlight across the floor, you may find her paw prints, and the red tears that have settled there—and you can follow these the whole way back.

Let us rediscover the lost fortress, unearth the skulls.

Crack them open and scrape the words free.


Mark Doten

Mark Doten is the author of the novel The Infernal. He wrote the libretto for The Source, an opera about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, and appeared on the New York Times list of best classical vocal performances of the year. He is senior editor at Soho Press and co-host, with author Adam Wilson, of the literary podcast The Consolation Prize. His first fiction piece was published in Guernica.

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