Posts Tagged 'war'

When in …

“Foresight may sometimes mean going to Rome, you know. And then doing as they would, you know, do in Rome. Which is to say that, sometimes, an absence of foresight leaves you stranded in Rome without a clue as to what the people around you are saying or doing. If that has ever happened to you, I hope you will forgive me. Because I stepped into the situation so freely, so utterly without foreknowledge, that you might say I could plead innocent, although I cannot plead not guilty.” He waved his hand vaguely at the stack of old magazines, the letters, and the photos, as if to say, here, here, this will explain it all.

“It was, as it always is, a time of war, a time of intrigue and excess,” he continued, and he poured an inch of cognac into my glass. I do not like cognac, particularly, but I do like the burning at the back of my throat, and the melting of the bones, and the reflection of firelight in the glass. I stayed in my seat, and he told me a story that hovered in the air, heavy with bombs, spies and codes. The night seemed to hold steady, like the flame on a candle in a still room, and his story wound through the war and through the endless night. There was a big war, and a silent generation, and a woman who stayed close but invisible as the enemy moved between them. Here, in this telling in this room, there was nothing in the war but sickness, depravity, and she was beautiful. She was beautiful, angry, and secretive.

“If you really loved me,” she would say, “you would live.”  The first time it happened, it meant one thing, and then the second, another, repeating again and again through all the war years, which were her romantic years, her forever darkened sense of love, sitting inside her body, waiting for one more explosion to carry her down in the rubble, planes, rain, smoke, and loss.

War, romance, sleep, death


Bear liked mustard, he liked mustard on his german dogs, brautwurst with sauerkraut. Not mild mustard, hot hot mustard, mustard that lets you know you are a man. When we were falling in love, it was like living in the trenches, like Hitler and Mussolini and bombs going off all round us. Really exciting, but crazy wrong.

Bear was rich, rich in ideology, rich in actual money. He sold cars to the Germans, he sold honey to the British, he sold watches to the Italians. The Swiss and the French he sold reservations to rest resorts in foreign lands far away from the bombing. The English and French had bad nerves and loss, lots of loss. Bear was half English, he liked to say, an aunt named Bessie, an uncle who lived in Inverness (Scots, I know, but Bear did not make that distinction).

We met while I was shopping between raids, between bombings, in a period of artificial peace. I was buying a leather handbag, and thinking about having my initials monogrammed on it. The shopkeeper was kind and attentive, and I would hardly have noticed the pause when Bear walked in, if it hadn’t been wartime. In wartime the little hairs on our arms stand up, tiny antennas reading fear, reading danger. Bear brought danger into the room. Danger and heat, and I admit to being young. I bought the handbag and left without the monogram. Bear followed me out and bought me a coffee on the sidewalk where the umbrellas had been brought out in the fall sunlight in an act of shocking optimism. The end of this war, the beginning of another.

This little village had some damage, some churches and banks that were shells. Every night, we covered the windows, and inside each flat, each small cottage, the stories were short and cheerful, to put the children to sleep. Short, to get as much sleep as possible before the sirens woke us. Cheerful, to convince us that tonight, as least, there would be none. I believe Bear slept heavily and well, all through the war.


The train was slow in stopping. She stood in the steam and the fog. The brakes screamed, the babies waved their little hands. Cccchhhhh. Ccchhhh. Stop. Her ankles are aswirl with smoke, she stands and waits and watches. Getting off the train. Polish grandmothers, Swiss nannies. Soldiers, flirting and giving cigarettes to Swiss nannies.

How many times will I call myself back through my bones? she wonders. My bones, the bones of memory, even when I am old and will have learned how to take some and leave some. Some memory. Every night, I see them again. There I am. Me, in my blue eye liner. Dressed as someone other than myself. Taken out of myself, by soldiers, and bombs and my missing child.

In May, when the weather is warming, what woman, what mother, can imagine the loss of a child, the whole in the ground where an entire building filled with hundreds of lives had been just moments before. Ana will sing in a low voice to the men who killed her child. She will hold them one by one against her body. And each one, before he dies, will see two things distinctly on her face. First, her grief. Second, his own death. And so she goes from gardener and mother to siren and chanteuse and killer.

This is a simple poem. Biblical, even. Ana has gone back to the basics: vengeance, rage and power. Tonight they are drinking at a club, brightly lit, with windows covered. The room is heavy with smoke. Smoke is swirling around her; she looks at him. She leans forward, he looks at her, at her blue eye shadow. She holds up her cigarette. He leans in to light it for her. She looks up and their eyes meet. For a moment he feels lost, something is wrong. She smiles, he smiles back, and the moment drifts away.

Strawberry desert

We sat at brunch, Molly, Sanja, Amy and I, and ate strawberries.  Amy pretended her strawberries were floating in champagne, but this time it was 7-Up, with some mint thrown in for the smell.  It was spring, but not the weekend of Easter.  I’m trying to remember, because things changed so suddenly after that.  Sometimes when I think about it, I seem to see ribbons and Easter grass, hidden eggs and baby girls in shiny pastel shoes like Jordan almonds, toddling along, baskets in hand. Here’s one, here’s one, says Aunt Jocelyn or Aunt Kathy or even young Eric, who has not yet noticed that it’s not manly to help the babies find their eggs on Easter.

But then, realistically (because realistic is what we are trying to achieve, right?), there was no park, no bunny, no pastels, no champagne. There was the sound of prayers hovering with the smoke at sunrise. There was the incense. There was that confused dream/nightmare feeling that mixes fireworks, celebration and death – even now I catch my breath when I see them go off and think about the ancient Chinese, who were artists of the exploding rose-winged dragon, and of the actual impact that blows off arms, noses, and acres of land that moments ago held what?  Sand, scarred roads, barbed wire, desert crops: almonds, sapote, dates, maybe a couple of straggling patches of naive cotton, cotton for ragdolls and memories?

Ragdolls and memories are wrapped bandages, wrapped bandages. There is a smell like saints. Why are saints all about suffering and death, I wonder as I eat strawberries with Molly, Sanja and Amy. They have forgotten – have they forgotten? – I don’t know and it is not Easter and I’ve been thinking about my old uncle Sam, who I haven’t seen since I was 7, when he was still alive and keeping peppermints in the pockets of his overalls. peppermintFunny to think of me and some old stoic Maine uncle – whose uncle was he, anyway? – sitting together on a wooden bench in front of a store where he knows everyone and I know only him and how did I get there?

Sometimes I have conspiracy theories, and sometimes I am calm and whistle songs I can’t name. Sometimes I wake up and know where I am. My uncle Sam, the one who must have been someone else’s uncle, my grandmother’s lover, my funny uncle, I just don’t know, only the feel of his comfortable belly and the smell of peppermint and sawdust. I remember he whistled old songs with that younger me.


In the back room, there was sawdust and the light was thick, heavy, coming through a window that hadn’t been cleaned since sometime before some war I’d heard about but was not yet born for, and the old guys played poker back there while I looked for bugs out on the front porch. But this is this war now and I’m a girl in overalls, I’m a girl who smells like peppermint and I try to raise goats with these brown kids in this dusty compound, and I give them candy like my old uncle Sam, whoever the hell he was.

Then again back before that, before the old uncle, there was the confession of old lady saints in my grandmother’s Nova Scotia. Whatever-all did the old martyrs of Nova Scotia come up against? Nessie? Old filthy crazy-assed fishermen with one leg and scurvy? Sounds like a movie now and that makes me want to shoot something.  A can or a dove or dovethat star over there, the one that rises first and can easily be overlooked. The incidental light of a small star that probably died gazillions of years ago and someone is crying at the sight of it, crying into it like that moment really matters and the blood that was in the sawdust or the sand could be fresh and could be hundreds of years old, really, because sacrifice in the name of whatever has always been a part of us – like hardwired really – like lust, like wandering in the desert hasn’t always been there, and justice.

Amy and Sanja and Molly and I decided back then that we would stop every morning at sunrise and sunset and press our heads against the dry earth or into the cool mud of wherever our memories might take us and let the images rise. Who can live without memory, I would like to know? Who can live without memory to build and destroy those walls?  Who can live without water and blood?

Sanja and Molly and Amy and I have brunch together at least once every three months, usually at the changing of the season. I got a tattoo after I got home. Molly says her head is tattoo enough; Sanja strokes the fading marks trailing down her neck. Amy laughs more than all of us and brings strawberries every time, in case the brunch menu has somehow left them off. Strawberries bursting with juice, falling through the effervescence, held momentarily in space with fresh mint leaves. We make our toast – to memory – and talk for an hour, 90 minutes, about our here and now. Kisses, girls, to love, to loss, to forgetfulness, to the great deadly desert between us.

Where a bear

When a fast-moving charged particle traverses a Geiger counter, an electrical impulse is produced. When an electrical impulse is produced, a charge is fired. When a charge is fired, a countersuit is filed. When a countersuit is filed, a unit is charged. When a unit is charged, a bank of data is created. When a bank of data is created, an account is recorded. When an account is recorded, a field is mined. When a field is mined, a history takes shape. When a history takes shape, a past begins to follow a path. When a past begins to follow a path, a bear comes along it, searching for food. When a bear comes searching for food, a yearning for fire grows. When a yearning for fire grows, a search for tinder is begun. When tinder is found, stone hits stone. When stone hits stone, a spark is lit. When a spark is lit, a fast moving particle produces an electrical impulse. When an electrical impulse is produced, a charge is fired. A history is created. A fire burns. A bear runs away. A bank is built where a bear lived. A small school nearby grows large. A large city becomes a holding tank. A holding tank becomes an armory. An armory becomes a congregation. A congregation holds hands. A fear takes hold, an electrical impulse is produced. A charge is fired, a field is mined, a bear is hungry, a yearning for fire grows and glows in the cold trapped molecules, the atoms and fathoms at deep charge depth. And a circle becomes a circle, and a circle that has always been a circle has always been a circle. When walking in a circle, take note of where you are, look around to see if you are being followed by a bear. 

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May 2020