Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Sleep of the Dead

Casualties aboard the USS Hancock, 1945.

James died again and again in his dreams, the consummation of one death flowing into the start of another. A skull-rattling shockwave initiated the procession. In this dream world, James was standing next to an aircraft, the deck of a ship rolling beneath his feet as he looked over his shoulder to see the inferno snowballing toward him. The beast gathered more metal and fire by the inch, spitting out pieces of the men it did not swallow whole. The light washed over him reducing his world to fire and pain. The searing light faded to a point and, just before blinking out, expanded again into a new scene.

Now he was looking over the khaki-clad shoulders of two pilots struggling mightily with a stricken aircraft. A brown scar in the green earth was filling the windscreen far too fast. As the pilots reefed back on their control columns in unison, he noted that the sky was a perfect, cloudless blue. The impact was violent, sending electric currents up his back and copper into his mouth, but his somehow-practiced hands moved of their own accord, pulling levers and throwing switches that he knew were shutting down engines and closing fuel valves.
He knew it was futile when he heard the screams coming from behind him, even as they continued to careen down the runway. They slowed and he unbuckled his harness, but he could not will his legs to work. He sat in his seat, as did the two pilots slumped in the seats in front of him. The sky was still blue, but there were cracks running through it now, silvery in the sunlight, and stars of blood stood out against it. He could see the flames coming by their reflection in the windscreen. His throat filled with a scream as they took him. An attempt to breathe brought only a searing gas that sealed his throat and lungs with blisters. The world again faded to a point as his heart ceased to work, then a new beat pushed the darkness back once more.

He was clothed in soaked, rotting fatigues, his legs weak with hunger and his mouth dry. His heart was pounding with the exertion of climbing a jungle peak shrouded in fog – and with fear. The normal sounds of the jungle were stilled by the presence of men. He saw his point man freeze and knew it was coming for an instant before the first AK-47 tore into the silence, urging more and more to join in. M-16s responded all around him, as well as the metallic rhythm of an M-60. He lurched forward toward a position that provided both cover and the ability to see and control his platoon when one round slammed into his head and several others tore through his upper body. As he fell to the decaying soil, his quickly failing brain registered the thunk of a mortar round leaving its tube on the reverse side of the ridge above him. His mind screamed, “Incoming!” but his body was no longer beholden to its commands. As he bled back into the earth, his nervous system worked only one way, transmitting the pain of a million cells starved of blood, dying, back to his brain. There was pain and fog and the increasingly distant sounds of war around him. It seemed to go on and on – the rifles firing, the sound of friendly artillery ripping through the clouds overhead and crashing into the earth above. The far-off voices of his brothers as they tried find some sign of life.
He listened as they argued about whether they could risk trying to carry him away yet. The firing eventually subsided and everything was very far off, except for the pain of dying. He heard his corpsman say he was dead and he knew they were carrying him back down the ridgeline in a poncho, but only in an abstract way. He could hear his platoon digging in for the night around him and knew the weather was too bad for a medevac. This part of the dream seemed to drag on for quite some time – the most remote sense of consciousness of the outside world combined with an overwhelming, slowly receding pain, like that of an arm going to sleep, only far more intense. Then eventually, sometime in the night when the natural sounds of the jungle were returning, everything faded to a point and it all started over again.

He looked down and saw the same sort of jungle boots he’d worn in the last part of the dream, but these ones were dry and faded, their green uppers vanishing into blue jeans. He stared past the worn toes of the boots at the gray waters rushing below. Again, he felt pain, but a different sort of pain. This was mental pain. Anguish. Of the sort that persists for years and years after the physical scars have healed. The sort of pain that crowds out all other thoughts and begs to be extinguished. So, he stepped from the rail of the bridge and as he fell, a new terror clawed at his chest and made him cry out, “Father, forgive me for I know not what I do.”
Hitting the water, he felt his bones shatter as he plunged into the cold, dark depths. He had never before wanted so badly to live, but thought he clawed for the surface, he could not find it. His lungs hitched with the desire to breathe. As the pain overwhelmed his ability to control his body, his mouth opened and his lungs drew their fill of water. It is finished, he thought, as he sank into darkness, but it wasn’t.

He next found himself perched over a grand, sparse panorama, the plane of the earth below canted at something near 45 degrees and scrolling by quickly as the helicopter he was in carved a tight arc over the pale brown land below. The view was at once as surreal as a museum diorama and as crisply vivid as anything man has ever seen. There is no vista like that of the combat pilot. As the nose of the aircraft aligned with a laconic copse of green trees along a muddy canal, the shuddering helicopter rolled smartly, bringing the forces of lift and gravity into their repose. He knew immediately what was to be done, depressing the trigger on the cyclic between his legs and sweeping the tenuous patch of life with the cannon the bristled from the chin of the machine just below him.

He saw the rounds blossoming in the garden before him, joined soon by the colors of other ripening fruits. Time unraveled and he felt the familiar clawing inside his chest - like a burning in the lungs only deeper. Things were happening so fast that the only productive thing his mind could do was to send out a chemical gasp that demanded the undivided attention of his every fiber. For a moment, every process in him ceased, and with that undivided attention, his brain played for him a quite important scene. A bright orange fruit appeared miraculously in the garden. The fruit sparkled in the green, mesmerizing James, then it grew and it grew and it came alive, flapping toward him with fiery wings, expanding until all James saw was fire dotted with a single, dead eye.

The beast skittered in slow motion past his shoulder, between several lines of glowing tracers and slammed into the slender metal tail behind him.
The aircraft yawed violently with the impact, then twisted the other way, picking up angular momentum as the cascade of misfortunes grew. Time reasserted itself as the chemicals turned fear into fight. The certainty of what was to come was for the rest of their lives outweighed by the refusal to believe in their own mortality. As the world corkscrewed up to meet them, they did what they had practiced, narrating their calamity tersely in the third person as they wrestled against the laws of physics that made the final judgment. "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. DEALER 66 taking fire. We are going down."

Following procedures drilled into their subconscious, they pickled their stores. The weapons fell harmlessly, burrowing into a soft blanket of dust where they would rest until found by beings who had no knowledge of what had passed that day or what the sleek objects had once been used for.

The machine continued its now-ballistic descent, no longer an instrument of war. No longer a talisman of man's ability to conquer the skies. The amalgamation of metals and organic compounds returned to the earth from which they had been created. The fire harnessed inside man and machine winked out as both took their last breath. Air ceased its role of life-giver, fueling instead the oxidation reaction that would unemotionally undo that which no longer served a purpose on this earth.

The aorta severed from the heart on impact and life’s blood into filled vessel of the chest quickly and painlessly, so that by the time that the flames of the pyre licked, then devoured flesh, the sensation was gone. But somehow he knew that the fire burned somewhere beyond the darkness that closed on him.

He knew there was one more death, but in the dream there was only darkness – seemingly unending, suffocating darkness. He waited as fear built into panic and then Penny appeared out of the dark and stood before him. He was struck once again by her beauty. He could not speak, could not reach out to her. She, too, said nothing. Her face was passive. Not blank, not emotionless, just passive. Calm. He wanted to ask her what happened. There was something, hulking and hidden, that he couldn’t remember. There was one more death, but he couldn’t form the question. She faded away into the black and he was once again alone.

With that, the dream slowly submerged. The details faded quickly as they sank below the plane where reality tenuously floats, but its terrifying mass would never truly vanish.

The darkness gave way reluctantly to the beginnings of light. James shivered, cold and damp. A loud sniff in his ear barely registered, but the insistent licking of a canine tongue that followed could not be ignored. “Come on Snoop, go back to sleep,” he mumbled. The licking stopped for a moment, then resumed at a greater intensity. James squeezed his eyes tighter, but his concentration on sleep was broken by the dawning realization that something was amiss.

Snoop. Sleep. Morning. Shit! He shot upright. I overslept. I missed my flight. His head spun with the jolt of adrenaline. He was thrown even more off kilter as he took in the scene around him. He wasn’t in the chair in his bedroom. Snoop wasn’t there, nor was Penny. A cold, gray morning was dawning over a low, disheveled cityscape surrounding the bench he’d slept on. A white dog stood at his feet, its tail wagging, but his body ready to run if needed.

James’ heart raced as he pieced things together. Each beat pounded an icepick deeper into his addled brain. He closed his eyes again, took a deep, ragged breath in through his nose, and blew out slowly through his mouth, opening his eyes to see the dawn ignite a rainbow of colors in his breath.

He cradled his aching head in his hands as his pulse slowed with his controlled breathing. James hadn’t missed his deployment. That was one of the very few things in his life he’d never miss, he thought bitterly. He’d gone to Afghanistan. Some shit happened. And he was on his way home. That pretty much summed it up.

He reached down reflexively to pet the white dog. The dog tensed, squatting slightly to prepare a hasty escape, but its tail kept wagging. When James’ hand came down gently on the dog’s soft back, both relaxed visibly. Its fur was short and soft, almost like suede. And its skin was loose with the promise of a far larger body. James petted the dog’s back absently as he replayed what he could once again.

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