updated for the 3rd time...this may be the final-first draft. if that makes any sense at all. which it probably doesn't. ooo workshopping makes me nervous!
i wrote this for my creative writing class - thanks to three images, an obsession with Vietnam, and the abundance of blackbirds on campus.
My body jolted awake, and I realized I had fallen into a trance. Somehow, I had made it down the hallway and to the doorway of my room. I paused, letting the darkness wash over me, letting it seep into my harried thoughts. It provided a surreal calm in juxtaposition with my labored breathing; I always felt as though a freight train had run through my body after falling out of a flashback or waking from a sleepwalk. As if the crossing of time waged some sort of war on my bones and everything else that surrounded them. My consciousness fights to come back to the now, but I have to struggle against the hands of my demons, clawed and snarling, and they leave bruises in my flesh and in my mind. There was still the faint sound of the TV in the back of my ears, even though it was no longer on, and I could feel the voices coming across the space in surges – rays of copper wire twisting and wrestling for their way in to my consciousness. I struggled to ignore them as they cut through the layers, but those metallic symphonies were stronger, faster than I, and they infiltrated deeper and deeper until I could no longer feel their roots to stop them.
Gunfire. Voices – angry, urgent, hollow. Rain whistling, screeching. Explosions. Agony.
In the reflection of the window, I could see my body, its angles and edges disfigured and ragged. My face was obscured, like the men in the story Mirello always told – no face, no reality, just the phantom of a man left behind by a pair of raven wings. Yet as the door closed, a spear of light shot through from the hall and found my eyes on the enigmatic surface of the glass, illuminating their presence as though a fire had been ignited inside the base of my skull. I knew it was only a reflection, a trick of the light, but the evocation of that image brought one memory racing to the forefront of my mind and I could not force myself to forget it. My eyes were there, staring back at me and demanding that I remember. My eyes were his eyes, and his eyes were haunting. His eyes were filled with broken soul.
When I was young and strong and filled with ambivalence towards the jungle I was trapped inside, a man I knew used to tell a story. Mirello smoked too much, and his voice was hazy and rough – the kind that so often accompanies wizened philosophy and a jaded sense of apathy. He had the mentality of a seventy-five year old man and the body of a twenty-two year old, neither of which were false, and both of which he carried well. Mirello used to tell a story, or maybe it was more a nightmare, about a field full of invisible blackbirds,
“Except they weren’t really blackbirds,” he would say – as he told the story often, “they were men. Men wearing black woolen suit jackets carrying large black umbrellas through blackened naked forests. They were the kinds of forests in which all the trees were dead, merely remnants of their living selves. The kind of trees that looked like the skeletons of men, waving their branches like arms in the wind, as if they wanted you to dance with them…”
“That’s pretty fucked up man,” O’Dell would say, just under his breath, as he always did when he heard the story. “Pretty fuckin’ macabre if you ask me.” He had these eyes, big brown eyes, that betrayed some inner sense of emotion that he tried to hide from everyone. Something that meant he was only acting tough because he was too scared to admit he was terrified. The kind of eyes that are the only thing anyone can ever seem to see. “His eyes!” they’d say, the breath catching in their throats, gasping. He was around the same age as Mirello, maybe a few years younger, but the difference between them was astounding. The sound of Mirello’s voice was like the ultimate ruse that everyone allowed themselves to believe; the look in O’Dell’s eyes told us the truth he never wanted to expose.
“But these men just kept marching,” Mirello continued, as if he hadn’t heard O’Dell at all. “They just kept moving, going through the skeletons of these trees. And the light – the light was shifting, squinting, blinking between the crooks of the branches. It was streaming through the branches just like it does here,” and he would gesture towards the sunlight shining in patches through the damp, humid air of the jungle “and it would catch and cling to the edges of the trees, and the outlines of the men. They would glow in gold and bronze and amber light, as if visible emanations of their souls were drifting slowly away from their bodies – from the trees. And the men, the men never had faces, just places overflowing with empty space.”
Mirello would always stop telling the story there because he knew that everyone was paying attention, no matter how many times he had told it before. O’Dell would always scoff and feign disinterest as the rest of us clamored for the conclusion, but we all knew he wanted to hear it just as much. Some of the guys thought that O’Dell hated Mirello because he was stronger than him, more popular, less fidgety. I always thought that it was something different than that.
“These men,” Mirello would continue, his voice growing deeper, “were all striding towards a staircase – right there in the middle of the woods – and they would just march up the stairs, one by one, closing their umbrellas and heading into the sky. There were stairs missing or crumbling, the boards decaying or gone. Cobwebs hung from the walls that surrounded the flight, but there was no ceiling. The ceiling had been gone long before the men had ever been there. They’d stop at the top of the staircase, because there was a door, but none of them ever opened it. They just stood in their black woolen suit jackets, with their heads tilted upwards, waiting for something to change.” The story always ended there, and even though we all felt like there should have been more, no one ever made a sound. I heard the story maybe fifteen, twenty times over the course of that year, and it changed a little every time…but the men never had faces. And they always started out being blackbirds…
Mirello and O’Dell really didn’t hate each other, much as everyone assumed. It was just one of those relationships that never smoothed out, never quite seemed to fit. Mirello was a big man, with stocky Italian features that accentuated the gravelly quality of his voice, and the thing about him was that when he talked, everybody listened. He didn’t ramble on, didn’t speak just to fill the vacant silence; his words had purpose. O’Dell seemed much smaller than Mirello, regardless of the fact that he was only a few inches shorter. He didn’t talk much, except when it was to himself, so when he started speaking up to Mirello, no one knew what to think.
“Why you always tell that story Mirello?”
Because people like to hear it, he said, leaning against his pack, arms crossed and eyes closed.
“But what’s so cool about this particular one? I mean… it’s not funny, and its not that exciting…”
Sometimes it’s just a story kid, he said. Eyes still closed, arms still crossed.
“These men, though,” O’Dell said, “why are they carrying umbrellas if it’s sunny? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Mirello gritted his teeth and opened his eyes. “Well none of it makes any sense. That’s the point. They’re goddamned blackbirds…invisible goddamned blackbirds for chrissakes. What does it matter the weather?” He was sitting up now, staring right at O’Dell, sneering. Then he stood and walked off into the brush, said he couldn’t explain everything to everyone. Some people didn’t know when to just listen, he said. O’Dell was silent again after that.
We all told stories in the dank and the dirt…it was the only way to stay sane. Even then madness would come creeping up, and half the time when I slept at night I dreamt of everything that had happened during the day. But stronger somehow. Like the pictures of the moments in my head had been hidden under a microscope and magnified, shoved into focus. As if they had been infused with clarity while they were fermenting in my memory. The colors were always more dramatic, like someone had taken cans of paint and splashed green and gold and ivory across the whole thing. Not that the colors in the jungle were drab; everything now seems washed out and faded in comparison. But in my dreams, they were almost surreal. Funny, how colors could be so vibrant in a place so overgrown with death.
There was a depression between the roots of three massive trees, holding water from the storm earlier in the morning, and I collapsed right there against the trunk of one. My body sank deep into my bones, too weary to support my own weight. O’Dell came over slowly, his mouth open vacantly and his eyes glazed in exhaustion. His face was ruddy from tan and the reddish brown dirt that seemed to collect in every crease and fold of skin. Underneath the color, though, I could see his pallor. Streaks from his tears laced through the dirt, creating trails that reinforced the story the bloodshot quality of his eyes told. At first he just rubbed his palms together, his lips still parted in consistent silence. Dipping his hands in the pool, he began to scrub and scour, beneath his nails and in the cracks of his knuckles. Faster and faster he pushed the water against his skin, until I noticed he was dragging tracks of flesh from the backs of his hands, drawing blood like cat scratches. Stop, I asked him, but he kept at it, his reflection staring up at him through the disjointed surface of the water. Stop O’Dell, I said, and leaned forward to grab one of his wrists.
“I can’t get it off,” he whispered quietly, still fighting to cleanse his hands.
“You’re scratching the shit out of your hands, kid. Stop.”
“I can’t get it off. I have to get it off.” I could see his eyes clearly in the turbulent veneer of the water, so blank and listless, staring without seeing any sort of reality.
“I can’t get it off,” he whispered again, though I knew he wasn’t speaking to me.
I can see O’Dell’s eyes like they were mine – and they were. They were my eyes, are my eyes, the same except for the crushing sorrow that was buried in their depths. I’ve never seen eyes that go for miles like that before; they literally contained distance so great that the intensity was overwhelming. I couldn’t stand to look for very long, for fear of getting lost. Yet they were soft, and tired, weary of the blood he’d seen every day for a year…the jungle was sucking the life out of his eyes one step at a time. They watched where his feet went, though they never saw anything but the light shining through the canopy. Twisting into fragments and bits, as if it could be changed into something physical, as if it could be caught and held in his hands. Held together, like he’d done for me, like he’d tried to do for Mirello. There was just too much energy there to keep within the confines of a body, and Mirello spilled out like the light, and he’d scattered in pieces across the whole length of a year in a moment. All of him, only just there and then suddenly gone; as that energy too great to be contained, Mirello burst open and into the tropics, inexplicably and all together too fragile. I watched O’Dell’s eyes crumble in that moment, when Mirello was ripped from his arms and carried away like the light when the clouds had converged. I watched him break down.
We had been marching just like we always marched through the jungle, our necks drenched in sweat, our limbs aching from exhaustion and frustration and anxiety. Most times the only way to identify anyone on the move was by voice – when we marched our fatigues camouflaged our bodies and our flak helmets covered our faces. Mirello was about fifty feet ahead of me, his body blending in with the trees so much that I lost sight of him without even trying. I was looking into the dying sunlight, watching the last of the morning filter through the foliage before the rain clouds solidified, when the raspy bark of his voice pierced through my daze.
“Hey, guys, hold up a minute. Hold up! I thought I saw something move over there. Heads down!”My body stiffened immediately, instantaneously awakening because of the surge of adrenaline feeding from my fear. Our feet moved more quietly and our backs were further hunched as we shuffled in the direction of his voice, following him towards whatever he had seen. Suddenly, there was an opening in the forest and the ruins of several wooden hutches appeared before us. They had been burned, gutted – cleared of any former inhabitants by the ravages of flame. There was nothing else around, no bloodied corpses or hastily made shallow graves, so we all assumed that the village had been deserted for a while. Even if there had been evidence to the contrary, we would have forced ourselves to deny the truth; no point in imagining anything more horrific than necessary. A rain drop landed on my arm and I looked upwards to find the sky hadn’t totally clouded over yet. The last desperate rays of the sun were caught like prisms in the scattered rain, and the light was refracted all across the clearing. The monsoon cometh, I thought to myself. We stood tensed, surveying every shadow for signs of disruption, suspicion, but after a few minutes we had all begun to lighten up. One man made a joke about wanting a refund from his travel agent, and another chimed in with something concerning his insurance policy. A few of us were peering into one of the huts when Mirello said
“Except they weren’t really blackbirds.” Most of the guys within earshot chuckled, and a lot of them begged jokingly to hear the full version of the story.
“Yea, asshole, finish the end. You can’t just leave them there in the staircase, staring like a bunch of idiots at the sky,” came O’Dell’s voice from behind me. We were all shocked. We had never heard him say anything so ballsy to anyone, let alone Mirello.
“Don’t call me an asshole, shitface. Who says they can’t end up staring like a bunch of idiots? I see people doing that all the time…” Just as O’Dell opened his mouth to respond, a sound like the crack of lightning rang through the clearing, and then everything was chaos.
He watched as Mirello died in his arms, life slipping through his fingers like grains of rice; too small, too delicate to hold. I watched as he watched Mirello disappear – his body mangled and quaking, begging for release. Like a single pulse of electricity, he jerked once and went still, shallow eyed and silent. It was if he began to decay right there, traces of his flesh vanishing as the rain slid across his skin, his muscles dissolving and sinking into the mud, leaving O’Dell holding only his bones. Leaving a man who had witnessed life stolen. It was only after Mirello’s eyes closed that I heard it. The sound came from deep within the cavity of O’Dell’s chest and rose up, and out, streaming into the air like toxin. It grew louder and more empty, more lonely until finally, as if he could no longer hold it in, the moan broke open and he sobbed. Those big brown eyes became like orbs of molten glass, shimmering and screaming in anguish. It was not wailing, for this pain was more powerful, deeper and more intimate than that. These were wracking sobs, soon morphed into roars so intense that I too began to cry, feeling that my heart might explode like the pieces of Mirello if I didn’t open my mouth and allow it to escape into the sky.
O’Dell cried as if it was the only way to relieve himself of the immense pain threatening to crush him, as if the harder he bawled, the more he would empty his heart of the fury and the sorrow that had suddenly ruptured in him. There was a sense in me then that the whole of the earth’s weight was bearing down upon me, and my knees gave without realization, and I found myself on the ground and howling. I couldn’t hear anything anymore – the screams of injured and dying men, the moaning of those who were clutching their friends’ bodies like rag dolls, the whistle BOOM! of grenades, and the sharp retort of the machine guns… none of it existed in my ears any longer. Wild eyed, I gazed around, bits of bone and jungle mingling together until I could no longer differentiate the limbs of men from the limbs of the trees. One by one everyone but Mirello and O’Dell disappeared from view, blurring into the background, and flickering out of my awareness, as if they had become invisible.
And so we were, O’Dell holding Mirello, both of them broken, and me kneeling in the mud and drowning in my tears. Watching as they became something wholly different than men, and waiting for something to change.