Abide with Me
July 10, 2009
After midnight, the kids in Hoosick Bridge and Williams-town were on their cell phones.
“Were you there?”
“That cemetery—you know the old one down Route Seven at Indian Massacre Road? Off to the right? Anyway Maggie saw it. Her and Blake and Robbie and Annie B. and them were down there to go drinking and walked in and saw the body. Dumped on the grass in front of the headstones.”
“A soldier in his uniform. Annie screamed and ran out of there pretty fast.”
“A soldier? Who?”
* * * *
The day began chilly and damp, and in the predawn blackness the fog massed like smoke against the windows at Toni’s Lunch. A set of headlights poked feebly through, and the first of the pickup trucks came into the lot, its tires crunching over the gravel. Toni set Mel’s coffee on the counter and put the corn muffin on the grill. He came in and took his usual stool and sipped on the coffee awhile to wake up. She was in the kitchen getting things ready for
the morning, clattering pans and spatulas and chatting with him through the cutout where she put the orders up.
“That’s a helluva fog out there,” Mel said. “Couldn’t see one side of Route Seven from the other. Cold, too.”
“After all the heat this summer, I’ll take it, Mel.”
He took another sip. “Funny business last night on the police monitor.”
“About that body down in Lanesborough.”
“I didn’t hear,” said Toni, coming to the cutout.
* * * *
Toni’s Lunch was a squat, flat-roofed brick building, the lower courses blackened with time. It stood near the tracks and the river, on the west side of Route 7. The name notwithstanding, Toni paid rent each month mainly by selling breakfasts.
The fog lightened to a dark wool as the regulars began to arrive, workmen, construction guys, contractors, retired men who’d reached the age where sleep after 5:00 a.m. was impossible. They climbed down from their trucks to take their usual counter or booth seats and have their usual eggs and sausages and home fries and coffee.
Toni was bringing breakfast to Pete Mallincrodt, telling him Mel’s news about the body down at the cemetery on the way to Lanesborough.
“Lots of bodies in the cemetery, Toni.”
“Smart guy,” she scolded. “A new body. A soldier dumped there.”
“I heard it, too,” someone said. “Kids seen it, they were all talking about it last night.”
Ernest Gillfoyle looked up from his breakfast. “Dead soldier? Down Lanesborough way?”
“That’s what Mel told me.”
“Well, the body come to life, then,” he said.
The breakfast chatter fell quiet. “Because I seen him just ten minutes ago. Walking up Route Seven. Damn near killed him myself as I come along in all this fog.”
* * * *
He liked to be walking before the sun was up. He liked to be seeing not seen, hearing not heard—and this meant being awake while others slept. Occasional headlights loomed suddenly in the early morning darkness, and he remembered obscure shapes outside the line—green figures in the NVG, and the captain, catlike, slipping over a rock into the dark.
It was still chilly. Wan light penetrated the fog from the restaurant windows across the road. The old guys in baseball caps were sitting with their coffee—they looked like ghosts through the mist. It seemed like nothing had changed in Toni’s, nothing at all. The same guys who had been eating in there the morning he took the bus to Basic were still eating the same eggs off the same plates.
Coffee would have tasted good, but he didn’t stop. His business wasn’t with them.
* * * *
The morning warmed. Wisps of blue began to peek from the top of the sky, and in Hoosick Bridge the wool was whitening. The fog would lift. At about 8:30 Jane Herrick turned the aging Mercedes wagon off of North Hoosick Road into the post office lot. She’d come to collect any last RSVPs from the mailbox—she hadn’t quite accustomed herself to the idea of responses on the Internet.
Lucy was in midconversation with Francine McGregor, the town clerk, as Jane walked in. “ . . . strangest thing as I was driving up—oh, hey, Jane,” Lucy said, using the soft tone some of them had for her now. On her face was that sad, sorry look that now passed for friendship—from the ones who still talked to her.
“Good morning.” Slim, erect Jane Herrick walked with a subtle lean now, favoring the hip bothered by arthritis, but unbowed nevertheless, her voice still just slightly too loud—not overpowering, but with that hint of command, despite all that had happened. Her hair had gone white during the winter of ’04–’05, but she was still a handsome woman. She had never been arrogant, never condescending, but she had been a Morse and was a Herrick, and
even now a patrician reserve was steadfast in her. For the most part she was alone at the Heights now—the girls were rarely home—but in that house, it had always been the women who were strongest.
“ . . . when I drove up this morning,” Lucy continued, “there was this soldier . . . ”
“Yes?” asked Francine.
“ . . . walking along Route Seven toward town.”
Jane’s fingers had stopped working the mailbox key.
“Coming out of Williamstown.”
“Just one by himself?”
“In his uniform, and with a big pack on his back, marching along the northbound lane, wearing that, you know, that what do they call that uniform?”
“That camouflage uniform like you see them in.”
“Strange to find just one soldier out by himself, walking,” Francine said. “You see the Guard go by sometimes, a dozen of them in trucks.”
The post office door opened, and quickly closed again.
“Did you recognize him?”
“Hardly got a look. But he’ll get to town soon enough—he was headed this way. Jane, you don’t suppose . . . Jane?”
But Jane Herrick didn’t hear. She had already left the post office, and at that moment was sitting in the driver’s seat of the Mercedes, her knuckles white against the steering wheel.
* * * *
Step, step, step. With a little water to stay hydrated, he could walk forever. The captain said only a selfish man, only a small man wouldn’t hydrate. A man was at his peak only when hydrated, and if he wasn’t at his peak, it would cost the squad.
Why had he left the bus at Pittsfield and begun walking again? You’d think he’d walked enough for a lifetime. Maybe it was the watchfulness of the passengers across that narrow aisle, looking
like they wanted to ask him things but were afraid to. Maybe it was the ones behind him. He liked people where he could see them. All those eyes close upon him brought him back to patrols down to the village in Komal, the way the Afghans would stare, and if you looked back and caught their eyes, they would smile in a false way. He remembered the village elder, Ramitullah, wearing the same smile the day he was in the headman’s house, where he and the captain argued over tea about snipers and wells, and all the while, as the mutarjim rendered the Pashto, the old Afghan wore that false smile.
Walking alone was better. The pack did not trouble him. He was used to monstrous packs weighted with weapons, ammunition, water, MREs, entrenching tools. He had humped an entire M240 up Sura Ghar. He’d carried packs up staggering goat trails in the stinging, airless cold that made a man suck for breath, packs so strapped with ammunition that if a guy stumbled and fell to his back he just lay like a bug with its legs whirling, lay there sucking on that nothingness, until someone pulled him to his feet again. He’d carried them up and down those mountains until his lungs expanded, or some other magical thing happened—he was never sure what it was that changed after that first six months—that let him at last get air, and spring from stone to stone as light-footed as the enemy themselves.
He was all hard edges, all lean muscle and bone. His thighs were roped, his calves and arms corded, hardened, his elbows and cheekbones and knees sharp, his back a machine. He could carry a pack for eighteen hours a day, with just a catnap for an hour here or there, and even then be wakeful enough to reach for the knife at the sound of a car door. He walked with that inclined posture he’d always had from the age of eight. It looked like he was in a hurry, leaning toward his destination.
Sergeant Brown said, “Murphy, you walk like you trying to beat your own self there.”
Pockets of thick cotton still blanketed the low places. On Route 7 there were more cars and trucks now. He didn’t like
sudden noises behind him, but these he recognized well enough—just civilian vehicles on a road. There were no explosives weighing down the rear suspensions.
The green peaks of the Taconic Hills were jutting clear from their white skirts. Each landmark along the road, each shop, fence, house, each farmer’s field presented itself for his inspection. He listened to the metronomic beat of his boots on sand and gravel, and remembered.
* * * *
Boots crunching on sand and gravel. Crunch, crunch, crunch, and turn. Crunch went the footsteps outside, punctuating shrieks of wind, keeping time to it. And inside Second Squad’s sandbagged hooch at Firebase Montana, one of the guys was asking, “The fuck’s he doing out there?”
They lay on their plywood bunks calculating the minutes until their next watch, listening to the wind whip and moan and beg and scream and whisper and then fall silent, hearing in the brief lulls the captain’s boots pacing the gravel, and now and again a snatch of his words over the wind.
“You know what he doin. Give a little education, in case Haji listening.”
His first night up there. The small hooch was hammered together like a kid’s fort from two-by-fours and plywood and buried, cave-like, in sandbags. It would be his home for twenty-one months. It was crammed with bunks, thick with the smell and sprawl of men, crowded with Kevlars and ammo belts and IBAs hanging from nails, and boots jammed between the bunks. And socks—everywhere socks hung from lines. A diesel heater warmed the little den, cooking the stink of sweat and bad feet and cigarette smoke, and now and then with the waft of MREs: of cold turkey Tetrazzini or Swiss steak. He lay on his stomach and listened.
Someone asked, “What he readin tonight, Sarnt Brown?”
The squad quieted down to hear it. And the disembodied voice came in and out, with the wind.
“ . . . this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day . . . ”
A howl of wind cut it off, and someone said, “He doin Omar again.”
“Battered caravan be this hooch and no doubt.” It was the big private stretched out in the upper bunk across from him. He was a kid from Mississippi, doughy and soft and large, with a grin that never left him, not when eating, complaining, shitting, under attack from Taliban RPGs, not ever. His name was Billy Hall Jr. Grinning Billy Hall Jr. was a stone killer with the .50 cal. He was stretched out on his back, his hands folded behind his head, staring at the rafter twelve inches above, grinning. “This here the number one poetry base in the US military. I Googled it and there’s an official top-secret report the Pentagon done at taxpayer expense. Northern liberals decided we gon rhyme the sonsabitches into surrender.”
“Omar Khayyám, he call this one,” Sarnt Brown was explaining. “Montoya—give me the glories of this world!”
Montoya had an iPod with twenty thousand songs, and he could rap or sing the lyrics of all of them. Montoya was a walking library of lyrics. “They stick to my brain, like Velcro, you know?” he once explained. He piped up from a bunk near the back:
“Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come.”
The hooch sang out in unison now, loudly enough for the captain to hear outside.
“Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!”
“Welcome to our world, cherry,” said Billy Hall Jr., rolling to his side and grinning at him. “On a side of a fucking Afghan cliff,
with mortars raining down your ass from all over this valley, the Army put a poetry school. You get your poetry school in Basic?”
He answered: “Mechanic school.”
“Well, we could give you a truck to work on, except you’d have to carry it up here.”
“Nothing here but wind and Haji ghosts,” someone added.
Billy Hall Jr. rolled back onto his back, grinning that big, sly grin from his biscuit-from-the-oven face, with a cigarette hanging out of one corner. “And a fifty cal.”
“Jamming when you most need it—maybe he can fix that,” someone said.
“And fucking goats.”
Someone asked, “Get your goat school, dude?” And then they were laughing, and the talk fell to which one of them would first have carnal knowledge of a goat, or of his sister, or of a goat’s sister.
* * * *
Later that night, someone was asking, “Prophet’s Paradise—whatsat mean anyway, Sarnt? Is that, like, Bagram? Or this shithole?”
“Firebase Burnshitter!” someone said.
“Y’all crackers go to school instead of poppin your sisters with Billy Hall up in them barefoot counties, you might read better,” said Master Sergeant Theodore Brown. “You might know what it mean.”
“Shit, Sarnt, your sister busy most nights . . . ” said Billy Hall Jr.
“Sarnt a eddikated man,” Billy Hall Jr. went on, “so eddikated he ended up here!”
“It mean, enjoy what you can, when you can,” Brown said. “It mean, take the cash. Spend the cash. The future all bullshit.”
Montoya sang out: “Take me away from the hood, like a state penitentiary / Take me away from the hood in the casket or a Bentley . . . ”
“Shut the fuck up, Montoya!”
“Fuck alla y’all inbreeds,” Brown said. “I like old Omar.”
Listening to this, stirring it now and again from his upper
bunk with a crack about this one’s sister or that one’s stink, grinning Billy Hall Jr. was regarding the cherry, whose face had betrayed him.
Roy Murphy shook his head.
“Ain’t no secrets in Firebase Montana. Up here, you jack, three other guys get off.”
And so carefully, quietly, Roy Murphy asked whether the CO of a US Army Airborne unit in the dead center of Taliban country, as a standard kind of thing, liked to wander around in the dark with a headlamp, reading poetry.
“To be fair, you ain’t exactly got a poetry reader for a CO,” said Billy Hall Jr. “You got a poet.”
Montoya said, “Poet of death, dawg. Poet of life and death.”
Sizzlecrack! The knees like Emma’s marionette. Report! All fall down.
He stopped on the roadside, shivered by the memory. And then a sun shaft popped through the fog and reminded him that when you hear it, you’re alive, and he started again. Crunch, crunch, along the highway. When those memories got hold of him, he might walk straight out on the pavement and into the grille of an eighteen-wheeler and see nothing but Billy Hall Jr.’s sunburned face, grinning the way to his seventy virgins.
* * * *
She knew. She knew it was him. She parked in the drive and hurried up the porch steps, because she knew. She tried to calm herself with false hopes. Maybe it’s not him, it could be anyone in a uniform. But in the pit of her stomach she knew who it must be and where he must be heading. She paced to the kitchen and then back to the parlor and she steadied her shaking hand against the mantel over the fireplace. He was coming here. On this of all days! To ruin everything, after these years! In how long—two hours? Three? Dear God. And then, later today they would all be arriving—all be here at the Heights!
It had taken all Jane Herrick’s strength to endure the looks she received in town. Some were expressions of solace, but others were the lowered eyes of resentment. Sometimes she could almost feel them judging her. Only the Heights had kept her in Hoosick Bridge at all, and the irrational idea that she, as the last of the Morses, was its steward, that she must somehow rescue the house from the shame into which it had fallen. She could still dream that one of the girls would settle here, restore family to the Heights, bring it back to what it had been. Thoughts like these roused her from bed each morning. The bad time was in the past now, for she had come to life again with the prospect of a celebration, the first in years, the next in a line that stretched back through generations. The proper place for this celebration was the Heights. It had seen a dozen milestones like this.
Emma had asked, “Mom, are you sure?” and Jane had answered, “We need to get back on the horse”—Jane, who’d never ridden a horse in her life.
And now he was coming straight up Route 7. She felt the same tremor she’d known so many years ago, when Emma ran with the boy during the summer before the eighth grade.
Jane returned to the kitchen and tried to sit at the table but could not be still. Rising, she went to the leaded-glass windows by the front doors and looked down Washington Street. Outside it was a quiet summer morning. The street was empty, save for the Tillys’ car driving slowly down the hill. She returned to the kitchen, grabbed her coat, and went back outside to the car, for she simply couldn’t be home alone when he came. She had to go somewhere where she could calm herself and think. As she stood by the Mercedes in the morning sun, she thought, Why am I wearing my coat? It’s warm today. She took the coat off, opened the door, and tossed the coat in the backseat, then drove off, thinking, Why must everything be so confused?
But about the one central thing she was not confused. He was coming. She’d always known that he would come back for Emma.
* * * *
The two-lane highway looked much the same as it had that summer he’d left. They’d put a wind turbine up on the ridge—that was new—and the Mexican restaurant outside of Williamstown had a new name, but the antiques store, the golf course, the cornfields, the Store at Five Corners, none of them had changed. It was not far now. He was just a town away, just over the state line from where he had left her five years before.
He wore his shades now against the glare of the July morning, but he liked the feel of the heat on his shoulders. Here July’s warmth was pleasant—nothing like the killing, searing heat of the Afghan summer. He was remembering Billy Hall Jr., who liked to make presentations. “Yo, Murphy, in consequence whereof you being at the single most ridiculous installation on the entire face of the planet Earth, a grateful nation is proud to honor you with the Medal of Stupidity.” Hall was always issuing decrees from the Pentagon or the White House, sprinkling them liberally with wherefores and thereofs. His lips tried to form the words the way Billy Hall Jr. used to do, up at Firebase Burnshitter. He was humming, “diddydum, diddydum.” He was remembering anapaests, and poetry school as winter came on in the Korengal.
* * * *
It was freezing at night and wisps of snow hung in the air. The snowcaps on the surrounding White Mountains grew larger, creeping down the mountain by night, every morning occupying more territory.
The men had gathered in the ammo brick-and-mortar, and the captain was saying, “Four men on this op. We’re going tonight, and we’re going light. The enemy’s been getting a little cocky in his approaches. Intel says he wants to give us one last send-off before bugging out to Pakistan for winter, and will be back Tuesday. This particular op might get a little interesting, so it’s volunteers only.”
The men laughed. They knew what that meant.
“My volunteers are Brown, Montoya”—he looked up—“Murphy.”
“Who the fourth, sir?”
“Dickinson,” said the captain.
“Sounds exhilaratin, sir,” said Montoya, and the men laughed again.
Later that day Roy Murphy was alone in the dark of Second Squad’s hooch, swearing to himself, pulling his gear together, ramming it violently into the pack. The door opened and Billy Hall Jr. came in.
“ ’Smatter, man?”
They were alone in the hooch. Hall asked, “Then why you packin that thing like you want to hurt it?”
“It’s nothing.” Roy Murphy whirled on him, and through clenched teeth he said, “Hall, I’m not scared of any mission, you understand?”
“But I’m not stupid, neither.”
“Well, that’s debatable,” said Hall, “but I’ll go with you on it. What’s not being stupid got to do with your attitude, man?”
“I’m supposed to go out there with fucking Shakespeare?”
Billy Hall Jr. nodded then, getting it at last. But strangely, the grin seemed to grow and grow on his face, like he was savoring the best joke he’d heard in months. His jaw worked as though chewing cud, and he grinned away, until at last, Murphy demanded, “The fuck’s your problem, Hall?”
He was grinning ear to ear by that time. “Cherry!”
“Cap’n ain’t sane, that’s sure enough, but he got it.”
“He got what?”
“The mojo. I’ll tell you something. If that motherfucker out there with you, then the odds are better that we’ll buy it back here. That’s a fact. Cap’n got the mojo.” He winked at him, and shambled out of the hooch with “Believe I’ll go on outside now, and take the air, leave you to abuse government property on your own.”
To the men in Army Airborne, light was a euphemism. Each
man on the op carried more than one hundred pounds of ammunition, water, weapons, entrenching tools, and MREs. Captain Dickinson was no different. Four kilometers down the mountainside they found the two positions he wanted. By dawn they’d scratched two fighting holes in the rock and moved enough stones to lie behind, with the captain and Murphy in one, and Brown and Montoya in the second, a hundred meters farther downslope and to the east.
“Cap’n, why we setting up down the hill? We get ’em before they come up?”
“No,” said the captain. “Not before.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The enemy gets excited. He shoots off all his firecrackers, and then gets sloppy leaving the parade. So we’ll lie quiet as he goes up toward Firebase Montana, and visit with him after the parade, on the way down.”
Brown smiled. “You gon read him a poem, sir?”
“We’ll give him a few anapaests.”
“Anapaests. Just like it sounds, Sergeant. Diddydum—anapaest. Tomorrow you’re the poet. You give him some diddydum.”
“Roger that, sir.”
Dawn was coming up in the east, over Pakistan. Captain Dickinson said, “Hit your MREs, and then get some rack. We’ll do four-hour watches. Murphy, you’re first watch on this post.” And then the captain was out, sleeping soundly on that cold Afghan slate as though it were a king bed in a four-star hotel, and he a mogul who’d just signed a deal.
All day they lay in position, as the stones warmed in the sun; and then all night, as they cooled to freezing. They belly-crawled away to shit or piss, scraping a place in the rocky ground. The enemy didn’t come. All day the next day they repeated this. And into the night. Still he didn’t come, and they ran out of MREs and water.
In their separate cutout, Montoya and Brown were grumbling
about the intel that had sent them there. “We been bullshat again,” Brown whispered.
“Till dawn,” said the captain. “If he stays away another night, we’ll head back.”
But the enemy did not stay away another night.
Just after 0300 Brown caught movement in the NVG clipped on his Kevlar, 200 meters downhill and to the south, rising to come abreast of his position at about 150 meters.
“Sarnt,” the captain was whispering in his headpiece. He’d caught it, too.
“Got eyes on ’em,” Brown whispered back. Now all of the op team were awake, watching. One, two, six men moved slowly up the mountainside. Six became ten. Strapped from their shoulders were AKs and RPGs, and two labored in the rear, one with a large tube, the other with an object they couldn’t make out.
Murphy’s pulse was jumping, his skin prickly. He’d been in firefights, he’d responded to IEDs. But he’d never lay in wait for a full-on ambush.
A whisper from the captain—“That look like an RPG launcher to you, Murphy?”
“Too big, sir.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. I’ll be goddamned.”
Staring over the rock, he whispered “Damn!” in a kind of admiration.
“It’s a mortar—and it’s ours. Haji got his hands on one of our two fifty-twos. That first one has the launcher, the other one the baseplate. Where in the Christ . . . ?”
They watched them come slowly up the spur.
“They’re humping our mortar up to shell Montana. That’s just . . . ”
“That’s disrespectful,” the captain said.
The captain watched for a minute longer, until they’d slipped
out of view up the hillside. The mortar bearers had lagged a bit off the pace. He rolled to his back and drew the knife from its leg sheath.
Roy Murphy was watching, wondering what that was for. “Sir?”
“If we fire, they’ll fall back, probably with the mortar.” He glanced up again. Collapsing the stock, he clipped the M4 to his vest. “And I want my mortar back.” Then the captain slipped over the rock and was gone.
Jesus Christ! Where’d he gone? What the hell was he going to do? Roy Murphy waited five minutes. Waited another forever until it was eight minutes. Ten. He scoured the mountainside with the NVG. Do I—follow him? Call Sarnt Brown? Just lie here? The NVG brought everything up greenish and spooky. He heard nothing.
He decided to call. “Sarnt Brown, Captain’s gone after ’em.”
Fourteen minutes. Fifteen.
In the eighteenth minute the shape reappeared. Murphy picked him up again in the NVG, moving swiftly over the rugged mountainside with a tube on his shoulder like a length of pipe.
He collapsed in the cutout. The M252 tube lay next to Roy Murphy. “Had to leave the baseplate,” he said. “Heavy bastard.” A moment later the captain was whispering on the radio. “He’s on the east ridge, about a click from your line. In thirty seconds he’ll miss his mortar launcher. So I’ve revised the plan. At oh four-thirty commence shelling.” He read out a map coordinate. “Do not overshoot, gentlemen.”
“He’ll miss his mortar, sir?” The question crackled back in the headsets.
“Brief you later. Commence at oh four-thirty. Out.”
In that darkness, the captain’s face seemed to give off its own light.
“Look alive—they’ll come right back to us,” he said, like he
could barely wait. Like it would be a party and they would all get to hide behind the couches and yell, “Surprise!”
Oh, he was alive then. Never more alive than that dark morning. The way it came on with noise and rush, the captain’s choreography at the center of the explosions, the bursts, the fire. The adrenaline rocket that sweet ambush sent through every vein. They did come back, they came back pell-mell down the slope; lit up by shelling from above, they swarmed to the trap and were ambushed from below. The enemy never came close enough to get off a clean shot at anything. Eight fell in the first wave. It was a hell of dark and noise and fire burst, but the hell was somehow contained. It took forever; it was over in seconds, and as dawn came up, the enemy was hiding behind a rock outcrop at two hundred meters, only a few of them left, their way down the mountain blocked by Brown and Montoya’s position.
“What have you got, what have you got?” demanded the captain.
“Just them behind those yellow rocks, at eleven o’clock.”
“Four, I think, sir. Maybe three.”
As the sun rose, it became a stalemate. All through the morning they were exchanging fire, with Dickinson and Murphy on the flank, and Brown below, until the sun was high.
“Any way to get a position to the north, get a shot on them?”
The headset crackled. “Negative, sir, we’re both pinned—no way to move.”
“Roger, hold your position,” the captain said. “Time to finish this.” Then to Murphy: “Private, keep them engaged. Get a burst off every twenty seconds or so. Start with a few bursts now.”
He sighted through the scope and let off a burst, and then another. Diddydum.
The answering fusillade sent stone chips flying. When he turned back to where the captain had been lying, he’d gone again.
Again—crazy! Hall was right—he was crazy. An hour passed. But Roy Murphy had a job now, and he focused on that, keeping
up the bursts. Focus, squeeze, wait. Lie back. Turn, focus, squeeze, wait. He thought maybe he got one of them, or his weapon anyway, the way the AK flew back. He was on the headset:
“Sarnt Brown—I get one? Can you see?”
“Can’t tell, Murphy.”
He kept up the bursts. And then he and Brown received a short message from the captain. “Engage in constant fire, sixty seconds from mark. Keep your fire down the mountain, please.” A pause, and then, “Mark.”
In the ensuing melee they did not hear the captain’s short bursts, which came from uphill and to the rear. Neither did the four Afghans.
* * * *
In Second Squad’s hooch, he would tell the story, and tell it again the next night, and the next. The story of Diddydum.
“Captain took their mortar from ’em? Just took it?” is how the questioning began.
“He left,” said Roy Murphy. “It was quiet. Then he come back with it.”
“He come back with it!” men repeated.
“When he went for the mortar team, you didn’t hear his M-Four or nothing?”
“He took a Ka-Bar.”
“The fuckers have a mortar, and he took a knife! Murphy, you the grunt, dude. You lettin a officer do that shit on his own?”
“Had to clean my weapon, you know.”
Appreciative laughter, then. The cherry got off a good one. The captain was a stickler for clean weapons.
It went on, the curiosity of those warriors. “Musta done one of them with the pistol,” Montoya said.
But there had been no sound.
Someone said, “That wasn’t enough, he had to go and take out four Hajis in that uphill nest later in the day—alone?”
“Well, we distracted ’em some.”
The laughter again. We distracted ’em!
Billy Hall Jr. was loving the new material. He issued a new order. “Attention, y’all. Pentagon regrets to inform you of some bad news. The Taliban gone and been disrespectful.”
“The aforesaid Taliban been extremely disrespectful, so we gon have to go and visit with them.”
Howls. Hoots. Cries of “Disrespectful!”
“So this here the mission. Sarnt Brown, go on out there and fetch me back a mortar. Pursuant to which CENTCOM has issued you the manners manual, case Haji’s impolite. Specialist Montoya, you go get Osama bin Laden—bring his ass back, too, and if he don’t say please and thank you, you gon give him a severe reprimand!”
Riotous laughter then, which cascaded into a maul, as men rolled from the bunks and headlocked each other, crashing into the hooch’s walls. They pounded each other’s heads, laughing so hard there were tears in their eyes. It was a Firebase Montana party; mauling and laughter, and bourbon smuggled up from the forward operating base at Bagram, and then there were insults fired at each other, and at the pussies in the FOBs who would never know a moment like that, at the respective pussies in the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force, and then at the pussies who played for various football teams, and then the usual broadside at sisters and mothers. There had never been an operation so flawless. Not a man injured. Not a man even footsore. The enemy that had so often wrung harm from them humiliated. The riot spilled out to the captain’s quarters, and they begged him to come among them.
“Cap’n, read us one. Go on, sir, read us one!”
“Respect! Show respect to the captain, or he gon take your weapon!”
More laughter. “Read us some anapaests!”
They were like children to him, in a way. The captain was smiling when he came into the hooch, but his eyes still blazed with that wild light that Roy Murphy had seen, and that Brown, the
longest-serving of them, feared. His eyes burned with it that night. The younger men loved it, but it made Brown and the lieutenant nervous—it was just this side of insane.
“Gentlemen, congratulations! A successful op! We inflicted heavy casualties and took none.”
A whoop from the men.
“We gave the enemy something to think about, and tonight we are feeling good!”
“He gonna have to mind his manners!” someone said.
Still with that light in his eyes, the captain now fell to speaking softly, so that the men in the back of the hooch strained to hear. “When you’re feeling good is a dangerous time in Afghanistan. You—Murphy!”
“You study history in school?”
“Not too much, sir.”
“And why was that?”
“Busy making bail for his momma, sir,” said Billy Hall Jr., and the hooch exploded in mirth again. But they calmed down quickly, seeing the way the captain had Murphy fixed in those crazy eyes.
“Why was that, Murphy?” he repeated.
Reddening a little, Roy Murphy shrugged. “Teacher didn’t think too much of me.”
“You need his permission to read history?”
“No, sir. Guess I didn’t see the point, sir.”
“The point, Murphy, is not to be condemned to repeat it!” Now the wild eye passed over the whole hooch, and they were all avoiding it. “How many of you know what happened twenty clicks from this firebase in January 1842?”
“Aw, that’s history. We don’t see the point of knowing any history!”
No one spoke.
“The British had come four years before. And they were feeling very good when they marched out of Peshawar to the Khyber
in 1838. Singing bar songs as they came through the pass. They were feeling even better when Kabul fell a few months later. An easy victory, and life was good! And then, not so good. In 1841, up in Kabul, British HQ was torched. Incendiaries. Improvised devices. Sound familiar?”
No one answered. On he went. “November. What was going on in November 1841? Anyone?”
“What might have been going on for a month or so that fall?”
One of the men ventured, “Ramadan?”
“Right, Nadal. Ramadan. Same as it ever was in Afghanistan. Ramadan—when a Muslim gets in touch with God. When he gets inspired to cast out the infidel. But we don’t need to study history after all, cause we’d rather relive it, am I right, Private Murphy?”
Roy Murphy stood silently near his bunk, taking it, and the other men were wondering, Did that really happen, like he said, with the British, all that time ago? It must be true if the captain said it. History.
“Back to our friends the Brits, who had their HQ torched by the Afghans and all of a sudden weren’t feeling so swell during Ramadan 1841. They felt even worse in January 1842, when their Afghan allies bugged out on them. Gentlemen—is the ANA any different today? The British were chased out of town and into this country where you are right now—two valleys over, where the great-great-grandfathers of these same Pashtuns came down from the hills and cut them to pieces. All but one of sixteen thousand troops that set out four years before. All but one gone. One! A slaughter at Jagdalak Pass, and only one guy made it out to tell the story.”
The hooch was silent now.
“So never feel too good when you’re in Afghanistan. When you’re feeling good the Afghan will greet you, and smile at you, and welcome you to his home, but he will never forget that you are the invader. He’s seen you before. Nothing much has changed here except the flags on the shoulder patches.”
Silence, for another moment, until someone said, “Poem, sir!”
“You want a poem?”
A whoop. Cries of “Yes, sir!”
“Wilfred Owen, then.”
No book for this one: the captain knew it by heart. As Roy Murphy would in years to come, from studying the volume that one day would ride in his pack. It ends this way:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“Good night, gentlemen. Get some sleep. Murphy, you did pretty well today. But read some history, son. It wouldn’t kill you.”
* * * *
Oh, he remembered all of it as though the images were tattooed on him, as though the earbuds were in his ears and it was playing on an iPod. He could hear the words, he could feel that diddydum coursing through him like white light bursting every vein. Only once was he ever as alive as in the Korengal, only once, and just the memory of that quickened the pace a little. Step, step, step.
And then—there it was in view. Standing just where he remembered. He squinted to see the bullet holes he and Emerson put in it, but they were gone—somebody must have replaced the sign. His mind’s eye conjured up Billy Hall Jr.’s flabby silhouette, backlit by the rays of sun coming over the eastern mountains. He could picture him standing to the sandbagged .50 cal, with a cigarette dangling, could hear his twang: “Murphy, I b’lieve we’s about to en-gage.”
“Welcome to Vermont, the Green Mountain State,” the sign said.
* * * *
The Howell Professor of History emeritus came last to breakfast that morning.
White-haired, blue-eyed Professor Roger Emmanuel, lately retired from the college down in Williamstown, was a figure often seen and heard in town. He sang in the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church and always got the comic lead in the annual G & S production. An audible sigh, and a bit of laughter, too, would greet the arrival of the Byronesque figure to the microphone at town meeting, for they knew that he would say something funny, and something else they didn’t understand, and that he would go on. At the college he’d been one of those lightning rod figures. Deans resented Professor Emmanuel as a showboat, the faculty groused (“What has he published in the last fifteen years?”), while those shallow hedonists who crave nothing but entertainment—undergraduates—swarmed his lectures.
In the best academic tradition, the professor was also a gossip. For years the college supplied him with a rich lode of trivial intrigues, but after his retirement he mined Hoosick Bridge for new ore. He was always stirring gossip along, on street corners and in Toni’s Lunch. He cataloged the events of the week over coffee cups, and then offered the line from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall that made sense of them.
The professor was often seen in the summer on his bicycle, and frequently, too, in the winter on his brisk walks, striding out for an hour or more from the little house on Woodford Road, four blocks from the center of town, where he lived alone. Dale the carpenter built a small library as an addition to accommodate his books—a job, he said, that took twice as long as it should have done, because the professor was always interrupting him to talk. “To be honest with you,” Dale said, “I never knew what all he was talking about.”
Everywhere he toted his manuscript, in a brown cardboard box carried in a green canvas sack. It was said by some to be a biography of Ethan Allen, by others a broader history of the Green Mountain Boys. He’d been working on it since he retired. Toni got a peek now and again, as he would scribble away on the pages over late breakfast at the lunch counter.
“I don’t know what it is,” she once told Francine, “except it’s thick, and has a million footnotes.”
The professor took a stool at the counter, set down the battered Kinko’s box, ordered coffee and an English muffin, and asked, “Toni, my dear girl, is it me, or does the town feel oddly electric this morning?”
* * * *
“He stopped in Stewart’s—the soldier. I was down there to get gas. He come in, picks up a roast beef sandwich and a water from the fridge.”
“What’d he say?”
“Well, what’d you say?”
“Nothing. That was the thing of it—nobody said nothing! He drops his pack outside, he come in, six, eight of us all just standing there in Stewart’s paying for our gas or coffee or whatnot, you know? Staring. Monica, behind the counter staring. He goes and gets his sandwich and gets a water, brings it up to her.”
“No. She rings him up, and he pulls this envelope from his pocket. Near enough a white brick, the thing. Opens it up and pulls out of there a hundred-dollar bill.”
“Seen it myself. Fat envelope full of hundreds. He pulled one out and give it to her and put the envelope back. He took off his sunglasses. He had a look in his eyes that . . . ”
“You didn’t want to interrupt him—you know? Like if you said something, you’d be interrupting him. He had somewheres he was going and you didn’t want to be in the way. You looked at him and you knew, he’s been over there. In all that mess, he’s been there. You could just tell.
“While he’s at the counter, Monica—her hands start shaking, she’s trying to make the change and shaking. Nobody’s talking at all. Monica hands him the change, and he puts the bills in that
envelope, puts his sunglasses back on, and off he goes. Just like that, bang, the door shuts behind him. Nobody said nothing except Burt Fredoni was in there, he calls out, ‘Welcome home, son,’ as he was leaving, but the soldier, he never said nothing, I don’t know if he heard him at all.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“I seen him when I drove out a few minutes later, walking up toward town, the sandwich in one hand, the water in the other.”
“Well—who was he then?”
“That’s the god-damnedest thing. That’s what we all in Stewart’s were asking each other soon as he left. Who? He was familiar to me. Skin all leathery and dark, black hair, what he had of it. Medium height, not tall, but a strong look about him. His eyes set close. Big hands on him, too. He was familiar. I’m sure I recognize him—everybody was saying that! Except, nobody could say who he was.”
* * * *
All those people in Stewart’s stared at him like a freak had turned up in Hoosick Bridge, like he had two heads. Same thing as on the bus. Did any of them even know there’s a war on? He felt his skin prickle under those looks. He just wanted to get out of there.
By the register there was a display rack of candy, bags of Swedish Fish and Dots and chocolates and such. On top was a placard with Bugs Bunny on it. As he left and quick-stepped north along Route 7, that picture of Bugs reminded him of Elmer Fudd, and he remembered the evening they all went to the movies, and the Warthogs lit Elmer up.
* * * *
“He ain’t never hit no one yet,” Montoya was explaining to him up at Firebase Montana. “Elmer a nervous motherfucker. He know he got to shoot and move quick, before we find him. He shoot so quick he never hits nothing. We get him one a these days, for sure.”
Not long after that, one evening after chow, another sniper shot cracked off the mountainside below the firebase, and Billy Hall Jr. raked the opposite ridgeline with the .50 cal. The captain
had had it with Elmer’s random shots. He called for a strike, and on this night they were in luck, because the Warthogs happened to be in range, and so his call was granted by the command. Instant excitement gripped the firebase, for this was a 3-D movie—you waited a whole month at Montana for this kind of show. This was like going to the stadium-seating theater at the AMC, only better. A minute later, Nadal said, “I got ’em!” A whoop went up as the men spotted the two dots in the sky, and then they crowded the sandbags to watch the dots take shape as A-10s and dive toward the ridge.
The hogs shattered it with an astonishing hell of fire and explosion, and the men shouted and whistled, but the whooping soon died down and the men were quiet. “Jesus,” somebody said.
“They musta done Elmer with all that,” said Sarnt Brown, softly.
He never hit nothing, but he was a pain in the ass, and so maybe this was his day. Nobody would survive that, the squad was thinking, as the A-10s pulled out in formation and climbed toward the setting sun.
Some of them were feeling a little weird about Elmer. They’d gotten to know him in a strange kind of way. They’d been living with Elmer for so long that each man in the squad had hung a face and a personality on him. The faces were more hapless and bungling than dangerous. And to be just crushed like that. Burned to ashes.
“I wonder what old Elmer look like,” someone asked, as though he were still alive.
“Like a lump of fuckin coal, dawg.”
“I wonder if I ever seen him down the village. If he’s a old dude or a kid. Yo, Nadal, you think he’s a kid?”
“If he is, he’s a dead kid.”
“I think he’s a old sumbitch, one a them pencil-leg mother-fuckers watch us when we come on patrol, smile at us in town, then scamper up the hill on his little pencils, with his AK flapping, and he can’t shoot it straight. Can’t hardly see, probably.”
“Bet he was a kid,” one of them said. “Fourteen years old, and ever time he fired his carbine it kicked him into a hole.”
Someone added, “Don’t matter now.”
The Warthogs were dots in a distant sky. It was eerily quiet, like when people walk away from a church after a funeral. Roy Murphy had watched this with them, his hand straying involuntarily to finger an object he wore around his neck and beneath his T-shirt. He said nothing.
Billy Hall Jr. stood up behind the sandbags and broke the silence by yelling across the valley, “Yo Elmer! Dude! You still there?”
His voice echoed faintly off the mountains. Then silence.
“Use your sight, you heathen asshole! This here Billy Hall Jr. H-A-L-L, and he want to lay some virgins right now!”
But the men didn’t laugh at this. They laughed at death a lot, but not at this. Sergeant Brown snapped, “Hall, zip that shit!”
You could joke about death, laugh about it, but you didn’t tempt it. Even wearing your IBA. Even with your Kevlar on, standing to the .50. Even from fucking Elmer, who had been crushed to coal dust and was dead as hell. You didn’t tempt it.
“The Afghan theater is in the round,” the captain always said.