Our first month over there in Najaf, while we were keeping the morning watch, me and Judson would hold our M16s out level with that well-dark sky and count down. The horizon was deep as a mineshaft, black and sucking up all my voice and air. One moment the world was blank, just the faintest blue haze smearing around the edges, and the next, that bullet of light would rocket up and blind you, full and ripe there just above the horizon.
Before we even saw the sun we’d hear their prayers, a crackle of loudspeaker and shiver of voices spilling across the city. Allahu Akbar, the keening of those words, rising up from all that sand, an every-morning source of stun.
Al-Hajarah, they called that desert. Al-Hajarah, An-Najaf. All those names so stiff and the land so eye-achingly flat. I laughed with Judson about the way I twisted those words up and spat them out all upside down. Back home our hills rolled soft and our place names curled easy at the edges, hushed with dropped syllables, Render, Monongah, Milk. Judson came from peanut country though, down in Carolina, and the flat, sandy soil swirled all in his veins.
In fifth grade, I had a schoolteacher who’d come in with AmeriCorps from someplace out west. What you have here are not mountains, she said, pacing the classroom in her aqua pantsuit, these are nothing more than hills. I stood up and spoke loud over the ticking of the kerosene heater. I told her the Appalachians are the oldest range in North America and she rolled her eyes. Mountains, I repeated. Large hills, she said, at most.
According to Williams and Judson and a bunch of others, those Iraqi names weren’t the only words my tongue mangled. Bob wire fence. Chimbley stones. Just those few words and they’d be howling, asking me to say it over and over again. I’m fixing to head over to the mess hall, ya’ll need anything? Williams’ face bounced out from his bunk. You’re what? You’re gonna fix what?
Judson and Williams and the others pined for Big Macs and Pizza Hut but I craved dark, wild meats, fried squirrel and deer tenderloin, food with the life still in it.
Here, in West Virginia, the mountains rise up in layers and trap the light, let only spokes of it out through the gaps in the ridges. It ain’t until the sun’s passed the tallest peak that you can see the whole globe, up there in that pale sky. The Appalachians are shrinking though. Eventually they’ll flatten down and the deep river valleys will turn to broad floodplains and the sun will quiver up over the horizon in one long motion.
The yapping of the sand-niggers, Williams called their prayers, and Judson flinched, looked away. Before that I never gave much thought to the tint of Judson’s skin, the shadow of his dark hair and the fact that he tanned up so much faster than the rest of us.
These days I can’t sleep past four or five. My legs ache at night, the muscles twitching from where they never could pull all the shrapnel out. More often than not I wake with my hands gripping my thighs, trying to squeeze all that pain away. I wake and Theresa’s gone, in town, working her night shift at the county hospital. We sleep in separate beds, but even before I open up my eyes I can tell if she’ll be there.
Sometimes, if her shift is slow and she gets sent home early, she’ll curl up beside me on my twin mattress, her hands and hair smelling of bleach. Most mornings though, I wake alone in the still-dark of our room, the old house tight with cold, and the red digits of the alarm clock branding themselves into my eyes.
I push myself up off the bed and reach for my cane. I hear it clatter and the clatter is full of age and memory, the sweat-smell of my grandfather, his eyes gone white as mushrooms and me forever fetching him his cane. I grab a sweater from the back of the bedroom door and head out, my breath ghosting before me in the purple-blue air. Fall is tucking in around us now, slowing the sap and bringing the leaves to the ground. One more good rain and the trees will all go bare.
My leg aches as I take the stairs but there’s a rhythm, a heel-toe, lean-just-right-on-my cane type rhythm that I can ease into as I slip down quiet through my in-law’s house. The old place is solid on its foundation but creaky throughout, built by Theresa’s ancestors back before The War. Her great-great-great-grandfather sold Stonewall Jackson his favorite stallion when he passed by the farm on his way to the sulphur springs resort.
The rooms are all dark, save for the kitchen where Theresa’s mother always leaves the stove light burning. I wrap my Carhartt tight and let myself out the back door and into the frost-crisp yard. Each little blade of grass is glazed in a stiff crystal that breaks loud under my feet. Above me, the sky is quilted thick, no moon and only two stars peaking through. Nobody else is up at this time, the road silent, a black snake of pavement cutting deep through Saw Mill Holler and down below, the steel rails, cold and empty.
I picture Theresa, in her green scrubs, drinking Styrofoam cups of coffee and walking the waxed halls of the hospital, watching over fitful patients and blinking machines. Theresa’s a good nurse. She could have moved off the night shift long ago, but it agrees with her. She threw herself full-time into nursing after our twin girls were born and then died, two days old—tiny matching slips of nothing, squirrel-small in their incubators.
The marines who had money to pay for internet could call home and video-chat, but me and Judson, we were stuck in the snail-mail time warp. Theresa’d offered to ask her daddy for the funds but a bitter burn swelled my throat at the thought of owing him. Was on account of the slow mail that Judson never got the news about his baby.
The barn appears on the hill above me, a darker hulk against the inky sky. I let myself out through the red gate, pause and feel my pockets for sugar cubes. The air smells thin this morning, a frozen swirl of wet leaves and the green-black scent of rotting walnuts. When me and my brother John were young we’d gather black walnuts, husk them ourselves and sell them wholesale, no more than a nickel a pound and the tang stayed on your skin for weeks, the brown stains soaked in too deep to wash away.
Along the tree line, the ground is hoof-scarred from the cattle that Leonard let one of the Farren boys run up in here last spring. My father-in-law owns thirty acres of hardwoods and pastureland, but he raises fewer horses each season, leases it out for cattle occasionally but they’ll tear up a wet field in no time so mostly it’s left open. Year after year I watch the saplings, multiflora rose and milk thistle choke up the pastures. Seeing the land go fallow raises a beat inside me and I feel young again. Made young by my anger over the way this rich land goes so unused.
I suppose that’s what the first ones thought too, those early pioneers who timbered off these hills. It’s all abandoned eventually though. Walk long enough in any direction and you’ll find bits of the old home places, a sprout of daffodils in the middle of a field, rubber sole of a rotted shoe, a deep, stone well fallen in with damp and death, and those Russian olive trees old man Spencer’s wife planted, their leaves silvery and whispering on their branches all year long.
We felt the car bomb clear out at the FOB, a lunge of earth that got us all to our feet. By the time we entered it, the market had been evacuated, lonely and silent, ringing with the memory-voices of vendors and radios. The building looked half crazy, half sane: roof fallen in, ripped wires, erupted floor, but among it, a single untouched decorative chair, a mannequin with a red-lace bra and on the burner of a small stove, a frying pan with a bright yellow egg, cooked perfect, over medium.
From the top of the hill, the slope of Palmer’s Knob appears, out across the valley, a blue-black dome with little pockets of morning fog. Sunlight strains thin over the tree-prickled peaks and at the bottom of the hill I see one of the Appaloosas, the old mare, alone under the osage tree.
She hears me and looks up, stretching her neck. I eye the misty trees, searching for the others, but the mare is the only one I can see. I come down the hill, just as I do most mornings, my hand held out flat, palm full of sugar cubes. She spooks at my approach though, backing away into the trees, her hoofs trampling the dimpled green husks. The fog curls around her and leaves the field empty.
Three days after Judson died, the package arrived. On the back of the box his wife had wrote Handle with Care: Denis Junior’s First Photos!
I find the others in the grove of white pines just beyond the pond, there at the lip of the woods, the huddle of them shifting and nuzzling. They’re all skittish, some strange current running among them this morning, and as I approach they break apart and move back into the darker shade. I count the spotted rumps. Stop and recount. The old mare has rejoined them but another one is missing.
My first night home, after Theresa fell asleep, I called Judson’s wife. She answered but hardly said a thing. Me, I talked too much, blabbering on about Judson, stringing words together just to hear myself think. I told her we were like family now, I hated to picture her alone and if she needed anything. She needed to get off the phone, she said, her baby was fussing.
I’ve still got her number but I haven’t called again. I haven’t kept up with anyone from my unit either. I tried a few times but they’re all scattered now, redeployed or moved on.
As they spread out under the trees, I see that it is the youngest mare that is missing, the one that will foal for the first time this spring. I peer deeper into the woods but I know none of them ever stray far by choice. They prefer to rest their necks all day across each other’s backs, nuzzling their musky coats and whispering.
I turn and head back past the osage, quickening my pace and leaning heavy on my cane. I wonder if the young mare were hurt and unable to move, out in the far reaches of the back pasture, if the others would abandon her. I’m lost in these thoughts and trying to remember the mare’s name when the sun crests and I come up over the hill, breath loud in my throat, and look east.
I see the old winesap tree, down across the pasture, heavy with apples and the young mare under it, nose-deep in sweet. Even from this distance I can smell the almost-rot, cider-scent and see bees crawling thick through the un-pruned fruit. Theresa’s great-grandfather planted those trees but they’ve been forgotten too long, the apples smaller each year now and wormy. The mare revels though, her rounded belly heaving, and as I watch, the rest of the herd emerges, hurrying to join her, running as one now across the winter-blonde field of timothy.