By Tad Bartlett
My name is Calvin, but only Julie calls me that anymore. I’m in a village. I’m surrounded by friends and enemies, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. Everything is brown. The houses, the streets, the gardens, the clothes everyone wears. The only things not brown are the guns we carry and our choppers in a semi-circle on the edge of the village.
I don’t want to do this anymore. Bullets sink into bodies or the earthen walls of the houses. Puffs of blood and dust. I’ve lost track of who we’re fighting or where we’re fighting. We’ve been in jungles, deserts, mountain passes and caves, sunny beaches, river deltas, rainforests, arboreal highlands, rice patties, old European river gorges, dusty African street towns—anywhere eyes stare out from behind gun sights or frightened from windows. I want to go home now. I want to take my daughter, my wife, into these arms.
I fall to my knees. I look at the dry dirt and rocks. I could bury myself here. I could wait it out. Then I could rise and go home.
“Oh Calvin,” Julie said, the first night I met her, “Italian …”
“No, Cuban,” I said, “by way of Brooklyn.”
“Whatever, loverboy,” she said, her red fingernail drawing constellations on my chest. “Your mother a poor working girl on New York streets?”
“Shut it. My parents were professors of Chemistry and Romance Languages.”
“And now you fight.”
“And now I fight.”
That is a long time ago, maybe back to when I knew what drew me to her, or more puzzlingly, her to me, what led to the beckoning, the bad whiskey in her kitchen, the long undressing.
I’ve headed north for three days, through swamps, remembering childhood and the smell of raw sewage in the bottomland, sex, hotels, homes, wars, battles, pottery sold in roadside bazaars, drinks in kitchens and in cheap bars, brothers, friends, enemies, images blending ceaselessly while my pack gets lighter. The gun abandoned in a ditch on the first day, the MREs emptied into my stomach at the end of the first night. Flash-bangs traded to a young bearded man in an SUV the morning of the second day in exchange for some olives, half a mango, and a handful of red chilies. A smile to a child the afternoon of the second day, a little girl, colorful silks and irises, hiding behind her mother’s stern legs, a girl like my own.
The morning of this third day, I give all my American dollars to a dwarf with three fingers on each hand—the land mine from the last invaders, he said—for a map and a cup of strong tea and a bowl of smoke and a wishing of luck. There’s a chuckle after my back turns and I walk into growing highlands, unburdened, the mud of the swamps replaced by granite beneath my boots, grit in the folds of my smile, three days old beard.
Planes fly overhead in pairs every hour—too high, I think, to make me out. It’s the sunset of the third day, and I crouch by a bush on a hillside above a river valley, picking berries from its branches and chewing them slowly, thinking of poison. I hear the telltale electric buzz and catch the sunshine glint off the rotors of a drone scanning the valley floor below, unaware of me.
I check the map again, dried skin of a goat beneath my fingers, old brown blood sketching a tracery of the goat’s generations in these hills, showing the gambol spots and the grazing centers and the place where his grandfather was eaten by a wolf. According to the map, just beyond that beautiful and tragic rocky outcropping, is the entrance to the city. I must not be more than a hundred feet from it, but I can’t see it.
“Let go.” I’ve heard the voice for months. “Let go.”
“Latin is not for lovers,” said Mom, the chemistry professor. “It never was, dear.”
“I know,” said Dad, the professor of romance languages. The whiskey lit him up in the center of the room. He was surrounded by adult legs and the undersides of boobs bound up in silk dresses and cigarette smoke and laughter. This is how I saw it as I crouched, unnoticed, behind the easy chair in the corner, looking up at it all. “Love’s all in the periodic table of the bloody elements, right, honey?”
Mom threw a highball glass at dad, missed, and the glass hit the side of the chair and rolled down onto the carpet next to me. “Felix bene futuis, dear!” Mom said. The laughter in the room only grew louder. I ran my finger down the inside of the glass, where the liquor’s viscosity kept it clinging through the throw. I sucked my finger and it tasted like peat smoke and the waxiness of my mother’s lipstick and the eye-watering sting of a skinned knee.
I unshoulder my emptied pack and swallow the last berry. I wonder if I’ll be alive when I wake or if I’ll wander dead down the slope and swim into the middle of the river whose name I don’t know but which is just like the Danube or the Nile or the Yangtze or the Amazon or the Mississippi—but smaller, more polite—to carry me out to a sea. I unlace my boots and set them by my pack, then lay my head on the pack and close my eyes to stars like the ones that rise in home skies.
Were we in Paris? Madrid? It was a city of limestone and marble and granite and art. The food was bathed in olive oil and hints of garlic, little flowers scattered about the plate. We were young and strong. We didn’t know the language.
“A baby? You really think we should try?” I asked.
“Of course,” Julie said. “It’s the next thing, right?”
But we didn’t try for it then. She threw the pills away that night in the hotel room trash can and we held each other, platonic, in the darkness, thinking about losing our youth to become parents, not wanting to be our parents, wondering at the inevitability.
A month later, dripping from a Venetian rainfall and our veins electric with wine, we fucked well, in an alley and in a gondola in a narrow canal and in the water closet in a dingy music club and in the confessional of a basilica and in our bed in yet another hotel room and, from all of this, on a hot asphalt afternoon in Houston nine months later, our freckles and pigtails was born.
Of course, I wasn’t in Houston. I’ve never been in Houston. I’ll never be in Houston. I was in a foreign town, staring into the eyes of our enemies and friends, pretending we didn’t see each other, walking down streets listening to the call to prayers, thinking about fasting and food.
When I wake on the hillside it is still night and the moon has a brilliant ice ring around it, magnifying the light on the rocks around me. I wonder, for a moment, if this is home.
The old orange-skinned bartender in the drooping one-piece swimsuit, warm beer in one hand and a half-ash cigarette hanging from her lip, said to me to swim out as far as I could go, that no matter how far it was when I tired out I could put my feet down and find the bottom.
“You could walk to Cuba,” she said, and guffawed a cloud of year-old smoke. “Bring Castro hisself a got-damned Co-Cola.”
I smiled at her, then I looked over at Julie. She appeared to be forcing her own smile. Then I looked down at our daughter, our girl, our pigtails and freckles, cheeks stained by oil-streaked tears and a hopeful look. She’d been begging all morning to be allowed out into the waves. I couldn’t go with her. Julie, herself a non-swimmer, had been adamant she couldn’t go alone. The sun was hot, even in the shade of the thatch-roofed beach bar. My arm ached, or I imagined it did. This was before the last arm-replacement, the next redeployment, when in my mind the stub still leaked blood over everything and everyone. “Stay out of the water for three days before the operation,” the surgeons had said, stern behind their glasses of rum. Clear as the sky.
“You can swim,” I told our pigtails and freckles. “You can swim.” She ran into the surf.
I sit up. My boots are gone. The pack is gone. My bare feet feel good against the rock and the grass. I stand and walk easily in the moonlight, noticing details that had been lost in the afternoon’s escaping sun. I hear flutes, faintly, and walk in their direction. Before me is a hole in the hillside, bordered in diamonds like crystal, rubies like fire, emeralds like the Gulf of Mexico the last weekend before I’d left.
A dream, not long after we landed at the big base on some Pacific island whose name I don’t recall, where all soldiers came and went on their ways to other places, where no one shot anything but dope, where no one fell in love but everyone fucked, where everything was sacred and for sale, an island that was no one’s home. The dream:
“Hello, Calvin,” the Italian man said, fountains behind him and three women beside him, their backs turned to me. “Welcome to Venice. We’re glad you’ve come, but be careful you don’t slip into the canals.”
“I can swim.”
“Not here, you can’t. Too many of the dead will reach up and pull you down to join them.”
And Julie’s face had looked almost relaxed as she retreated into that slimy green water. I thought I saw the fingers clutched around her ankles before her gown swirled up around her and she was gone.
A cloud covers the moon, and it becomes dark this third night feeling a fourth morning coming, the jewel-framed hole before me, another beckoning, another long undressing, waiting for me to enter. A hooded figure appears at the entrance, shrouded in green cloth. By the way she turns away from me I know she is a woman. She walks down into the dark, and I follow.
After I squeeze through a pinprick opening beyond the entrance, my feet are on solid granite again. What appears to be the city stretches out below. The shrouded woman is just ahead of me on a path through dense forest and undergrowth that couldn’t grow all together in one place anywhere else but in this space—swamp cypress, blue fir, water oak, slash pine, wild rose, magnolia, eucalyptus, azalea, sago palm, camellia, dandelion, milkweed, loblolly, cedar, olive, honeysuckle, kudzu. A phosphorescent-star-pocked sky lights up a riotous day in the valley. Men gaze up, their bodies still muddled by the distance, but their eyes sparking like dying embers.
The guide stops in the middle of the path, removes her hood, shakes out her hair and turns to face me.
“I left my gun behind,” I say.
“You are among enemies and friends,” she says.
“I have nothing.”
“We are all rich with that, here.”
“I have nothing to grasp onto.”
“There is no killing in the city,” she says.
“Oh Calvin, don’t go away again.”
“I have to.”
The guide leads me through the outskirts, mile upon mile billowing out like big box store petticoats, the city opening its boulevards wide to receive us. Nothing is too tall, but I can’t see beyond what is right beside us, right ahead of us, right behind us. The suburb of the sub-city never stops, the same buildings and asphalt and concrete over and ever, no going back, always forward. The citizens pack around us, in cars and in rickshaws and on foot, but they are indistinguishable from each other—blurs, eyes, mouths, teeth, looking and talking a roar. Traffic lights in concentric patterns and full-spectrum color direct the endless streams. The guide’s name is Anna. Her hair is red.
“Let go,” Anna says. “Let it go.”
I’m startled. “Let what go?”
But she’s already through the next intersection and onto the next street. “The city is a joy,” I hear, but the voice is Julie’s, not Anna’s.
“This will blow your mind, Meat,” my staff sergeant said from the open door of the helicopter, the blades circling slower as the engine whine cuts off. He held out a joint toward me. We were landing at the new forward base. More villages. More villagers. More patrols. The sergeant was smiling. I held a letter in my hand, the words killing whatever they had tried to capture, the illusion of home, always ungraspable. A picture, a facsimile of a child, pigtails, freckles. I spat at the sergeant and walked the other way. Too many illusions.
I look down at my map and see we’ve traveled the blood-line well off the edge of the goat skin. “Anna, when will we arrive?” I ask.
She is suddenly against me, her body full and present, her arms wrapped around me like vines, her breath like orchids soft against my face. “Arrive where?” she asks.
“Where you’ve been leading me.”
“We arrived hours ago. We’re here.”
“This is the city?” I look around. All that has been moving has stopped. The buildings have grown to skyscrapers, shining and black, metal, glass, stone. Gargoyles, capitals, columns, gingerbread molding, cast-iron vents belching steam, and neon tubing everywhere. Impossible balance of proportions, upside-down pyramids stretching hundreds of stories to the distant sky ceiling. The packed crowd stares at us, surrounds us, breathes our air, listens to our words.
“You could fuck me,” says Anna.
“You could make love to me, then. Whatever.” Her hands pull at my pants, rove under my shirt and over the skin of my back.
“It matters, what we call it,” I say. “I have Julie, and a daughter.”
“What if we just call it sex? Pleasure?” Anna says.
“Procreation, fine, whatever.” I’m exasperated.
“No, not that. We don’t make life here, in the city.”
“What is this? Why have you led me here?”
“Why did you come?”
“Anna, do you love me?”
“But we’re enemies.”
“And we’re friends,” she says, and then she vanishes. I look around, and all the rest of the people are gone, too. The streets are gray. The neon lights extinguish, their tubes turning black. A cold wind howls through the concrete canyons. I walk onward.
“Oh, Calvin, why did you have to go again?” Julie cried on the other end of the phone, on the other side of the world.
“Is she going to make it?”
“Fuck you, Calvin. She’s gone.” Our pigtails and freckles.
“I thought she’d pull through, that she’d come home, that she’d be there when I came back.”
“Do you even know where home is anymore?” Julie. Julie is home.
“Was it Houston?” I asked. It could have been anywhere that she picked it up. Houston, Lake Charles, Gary. Or one of the small places with dangers hidden, not in big factories and dark streets, but in the small summer places of swimming holes. Cloverdale, Satsuma, Sunset, Happiness, Utopia. A different town every year.
“It was home, Calvin. It was home. And you weren’t.”
I’d sat in the communications tent, the phone to my ear, for a half-hour after she hung up on me.
As I walk through the streets of the city, I notice that the windows of the buildings are busted out, shards hanging in gaped openings like young jack-o-lanterns or bombsites. Indistinguishable faces appear in the window openings, dark, their eyes staring and blank. They fear me or pity me or hate me. I’m with them, if I only could know where I am. Ahead, I see a figure standing in the middle of the street, facing away from me. I hope it is Anna. It might even be Julie. As I approach, the skyscrapers flatten again into the endless scream of rectangular boxes; the neon tubes reignite; I feel the rush of the crowd on all sides. The figure ahead remains still, waiting.
Close enough, suddenly, to reach out and touch, I put a hand up to her shoulder, but the figure melts downward. When she turns, she is neither Anna nor Julie nor even my freckles and pigtails, but the old dwarf, three fingers on each hand. In one hand he holds a rope, on the other end of which is a goat, flayed of its skin, all taut muscle and ropey veins and flies. Eyeballs, meat. The dwarf looks at me, laughter across his wrinkled face. “You have found where you are going?” he asks.
“The map came to an end.” I hold up the skin map to show him where the line of dried blood came to an end on the edge of the map, leaving me lost and without my guide.
“The map is not ended,” he says. “You only need to turn it over.” And he takes the map from me, folds it, then unfolds it so that the other side is facing up. I see nothing but spots, splotches of blood, fresh red blood. He smoothes the map over the back of his goat, pulling the map tight and tucking it into crevices between the muscles covering the ribs, tying a corner around one of the horns, stretching it until it covers the goat. The goat rears its legs and kicks, then tugs the rope out of the dwarf’s hands and runs down the road.
“What do I do now?” I ask the dwarf. I suppose he’s long since spent the dollars I gave him.
“The goat is the map. Follow him.” His chuckle follows me again, as this time I run after the goat, little more than a bleating cloud of dirt ahead of me.
They called themselves “men.” With their guns and their grenades and their rockets and their drones and their bombs and their flame-throwers and their hashish and their prostitutes and their moonshine and their letters from home—they called themselves “men.” “Let’s go fuck some shit up,” said the men. “Let’s go out on patrol,” said the men. “Let’s build roads and schools,” said the men. “And a new water purification system,” said the men. “But first let’s kill us some gooks, some spics, some fags, some chinks, some ragheads, some sand niggers, some kikes, some jungle monkeys,” said the men. “Let’s get some of that pussy pussy,” said the men. They called themselves “men.”
I closed my eyes on the roomful of men and feigned sleep. My freckles and pigtails was covered in dirt. The men said, “Thomeone getting thoft? Thomeone want hith mommy and hith loverman?” I thought the men could go fuck themselves. It hadn’t always been like this. Life hadn’t always been like this. It had been like a home.
I’ve been following the goat. The phosphorescent skies dim and brighten in regular cycles, but I don’t remember time outside the city any longer. Always he runs, just within my sight but outside my grasp. The city seems to end, then springs up again, and always we run.
“Why’s this important?” I asked over the rumble of the helicopter.
“Shut up, Meat,” said the sarge. “They’re the enemy. You shoot them. We go home.” The men were high-tech, deadly statues, silent in their helmets and goggles and packs and guns and clips and com equipment, waiting for the chopper to set down. But inside, I knew, they were thinking cheers of victory, whimpers of fear, moans of ecstasy, because they were men and this is what they’d always been.
The skids hit the ground hard. Men, women, boys, girls, poured out of the open doors of houses, colors swirling around them, then just as quickly drained back through the doorways, but doors or walls didn’t matter against those who called themselves men and the weapons they brought with them. These buildings were home, but it didn’t matter. Then shots thundered from behind us, then from either side, unexpected. These were our friends and our enemies. I sat in the dirt behind a house. I pulled a spade from my pack and tested the loose soil, turning over a few shovels-full. This was home.
The phosphorescent starlit sky dims a third time in my run. The city finally seems to have come to an end. A light in a house window comes up and falls behind. The goat slows. If I had it in me to keep sprinting, I could catch him quickly. Instead I jog, getting close enough I can see the glow of a map formed on his skin, but not close enough to grab him in my arms, hug him, weep.
The road feels ancient under my feet, pavers hewn from long-ago hillsides, when women and men watched the sun and the stars and discovered geometry and built temples to the gods of love and intellect. Ahead, a distant spark grows into a roaring campfire, a circle of cloaked figures sitting around it.
The dirt covered me like a fine shallow grave—rocks, too. I’d left only two holes, my goggles like windows between rocks as the firefight raged above me, enemies and friends on all sides, until the shooting died down and the cussing rose up, the American “fuck,” the dragging of bodies, the calls of “Where’s Meat, fuck” and “fucker been weird” and “where the fuck” and “no fucking body” and “did he fucking run off with them bastard children or get fucking captured” and “fuck fuck fuck” and “fucking paperwork catastrophe,” and then boots beating back and chopper rotors lifting off and then quiet punctuated only by the occasional scrabble of rodent feet, then darkness, then the slithering skin of serpents, tongues flicking goggle panes, and then nothing and nothing and nothing.
At the beginning of the first day, I rose, dirt falling loose from around the mask covering my mouth, from the full pack on my back, through the laces of my boots, from the smile on my face, stubble starting to grow. A scorpion slid into and then out of my pocket, nothing for it. The swamp stretched ahead.
As we near the fire circle, I catch up to the goat, reach down and grab the rope that has been hanging loose from his neck. The goat stops. I look down at his back and see a red line of fresh blood run across to an x low on his left flank, near his heart. We are here.
“Come. Sit with us,” says one of the figures. They all pull their hoods back. In the firelight, they are men and women. Some are dark. Some are not. Some look like the doctors who cut off my arms. Some look like the doctors who sew on new arms. Some look like the old bartender by the beach. Some look like the dwarf. Some look like my third grade teachers. Some look like Julie. Some look like Anna. They aren’t really these people. But they could be.
I have a picture in my mind, something more than a facsimile but less than a dream. A hotel room bed with sunlight from some vacation spot blazing through the window. Julie is snuggled up against me. Our pigtails and freckles, maybe she’s four in this picture, is all smiles, and she comes running into the picture and jumping onto the bed, climbing over Julie and me. There is tickling and giggling and my heart feels like it will bust and my cheeks feel like they will crack and then we are indistinguishable from each other and the image halts and I think, if I can only get back here.
I approach their circle and sit among them. The goat sits behind me, gently butts its horns against my back, boring into my shoulders, penetrating my heart.
“It took you a long time to arrive,” says one who looks like a surgeon.
“You’re not easy to find.”
“You only needed to follow the map,” says another, who looks like the old bartender. The goat begins nuzzling and licking my neck and the backs of my ears. He nibbles my hair. I feel a warm oozing under my shirt.
“I did,” I say. “I followed the map for many days. I thought you would be in the city.”
“We are in the city,” one says.
“You did well,” says another.
I reach under my shirt and bring my hand out. It is covered in blood, warm and sticky, and I feel more pouring down my sides, filling my lap, pooling around my legs.
“You should tell us your stories,” says the one who looks like Anna. I imagine her body pressed against mine again.
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” I say. “They’re the only stories I know.”
“Then you should be rewarded,” says the one who looks like Julie. I imagine her lips on my lips. I imagine the lips of our pigtails and freckles on her breast. I imagine lips.
“What would you like?” says the one who looks like my mother, though she could also be a geometry teacher or a temple-builder.
“To be home,” I say.
And then I was.
Tad Bartlett’s essays are found on the online Oxford American, his poetry in The Double Dealer, and his fiction in The Rappahannock Review. He is currently an MFA student at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Tad is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.