by Dave Sokolowski
So you want to hear about the war.
You see the window there at the end of the bar, clouded over with years of smoke and dust? The window that glows with sunlight despite the grime, a box of warm natural life intruding on this cold, dark room?
That’s what war is like. You know the warmth, the heat, is out there, outside, but you’re here, in the dark, inside. You hear about the sun, how it’s warm and beautiful and grand and noble and that it makes a difference; all living things are born from the sun; we live and die by its light.
Yet here, on the inside, we’re clouded by the darkness, held to our own to survive.
Away from the light.
So I’ll tell you about the war, a conflict I do not and did not believe in. Even with all these years between then and now, I still don’t believe in it.
Doesn’t matter. Life moves on regardless of feelings and needs. That’s what life is: the relentless passage of time. Never-ending. If we weren’t alive we couldn’t see the rain fall, the leaves change, the birds fly. But since we live we can see and feel and know that time moves on. We can’t stop it.
All we can do is adapt.
Otherwise, we should probably just decide if it’s even worth living, take matters into our own hands. At some point we should act on this. I know people, I’ve met them, who would have done the world a great service by killing themselves early on. Some people just aren’t worth the trouble, that’s what I say.
Now I won’t deny it’s a tough decision to make, but life ain’t an easy thing, and if we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we’re really just left at time’s mercy. We shouldn’t complain when things go bad – they just do. Time is the bus that blindsides us as we cross the street, crushing our skull and sending our shattered glasses into the ditch as it speeds away in a cloud of dust, leaving us broken and alone and wondering why.
But I promised I’d talk about the war. The War. I’ll tell you about it because my story is different, better than the rest. Look around. See all these people, normal folk here in the bar drinking their lives away? I may look like them, but I’m not.
My world is different, just like my stories.
The pale blue sky opened above us and we smiled in the cool autumn air. The sun was shining for the first time in weeks and the sun always made us think of home – this was our only solace, the only thought that could drive a smile while stuck in hell.
So we joked and smiled at the sun and dug small holes in the hard ground to lay our mines. There were just the eight of us – a squad of infantry, out laying mines at the forest edge, the front lines a mile or two away. It was an alright day to be alive.
I was just 18 then, just 18. So long ago. At that point I had seen battle a couple times, and only with my eyes. My squad had reinforced a line that had been in battle during the first counter-offensive, but we were held in reserve and just huddled in the trench, watching the conflict from across a large field.
Now, from across that field, the stretch of dirt and craters butted up against the mountains separating this valley from that, bisected by a dark line, I traced the road rising up and over and through the pass. The road littered with burnt and destroyed vehicles, black spots against the brown and gray mountain.
The soldier with the curly brown hair that rolled out from under his cap turned and smiled at me. He lit a cigarette and said, “Back home, days like this mean you just gotta get outside, maybe take a horse ride or just a long walk down the valley.”
“Where you from?” asked the guy with the freckles. I think he had an accent.
“Northwest,” said Curly. “We’ve got a farm and days like these, well, a day without rain in December is a pretty rare thing.”
“You don’t know what rain’s like,” said Sarge. He was the bald guy, missing a couple front teeth.
“Like hell I don’t,” Curly said, knelt, and placed a mine into the hole I had dug. You get used to digging mines, but only when it’s quiet, and you get used to dirty fingers, all the time. They don’t like you to have dirty fingernails so you learn it’s easier to keep them really short. And because I was the new guy I got to dig. I dug, Curly placed a mine, the guy from the South brushed dirt over it.
“Up North it rains six months a year, and we’re never so lucky to have a dry day in December,” Sarge said and spit on the frozen ground. “You got it easy.”
See, I wasn’t just digging a hole in the ground, I was chipping a hole in the frozen ground, and even through I only needed to dig down six inches, it was solid after two. Like ice.
“Rain,” said Skinny, who talked through his nose. “That cold comes off the lake, our whole city freezes and we don’t leave the house for months.”
These men – I knew these men that day. Not by their ranks or shapes or where they came from, but by their spirit. Here, I wasn’t just a 18 year old boy on his way to becoming a man; I wasn’t just a soldier who may live or die but will do it for his country no matter. On that day I was a brother. I entered into a fraternity of necessity – humans need a connection, need a home. And when you pull them away from the place they live and were raised, from their loved ones and neighbors and that old couple that runs the corner store, when you tear a man away from his roots, wherever you place him, wherever he can finally rest, he will grow new roots and call that home. And if that home is a war he did not create, but still must live by and die by, then he will root with those like him – those other men who did not make the war, for the men who create war do not fight it; those who create war must see it through, from start to finish, and so use other men, little men, as soldiers, as materiel.
There are no generals on the front lines.
And then, as the guy with the round head and strange lisp said, “Well, back home we don’t even got no ‘lectrithitty…,” a hawk cried somewhere above us.
The smoke from our cigarettes drifted with our gazes toward the sky.
In the longest moment.
There, for a second, we didn’t know any better, were just a group of men talking and smoking cigarettes on a cold day, wishing things were different, knowing they were not, and just hoping that we’ll be one of the lucky ones because some do make it – some do live.
But the closer you got to the war the closer you got to the truth that you can’t tell if you will live or die, that tomorrow may never come; we held each other tight in our hearts – dropped roots – only to lose our investment because someone has to die every day.
The cry became a shriek.
Sarge wanted to say something, anything.
We all blinked and the understanding held us together in that moment, but it was too late – the mortar dropped right in the bag of mines hanging around Skinny’s shoulders, and the world and the men and the mines all exploded, all at once, all but me.
I was behind the guy with the round head, the big guy, digging holes in the cold ground when everyone else died.
Today I finished off a bottle of gin before I left the house. That’s what you need to do to stay focused in this world – finish what you start. So before I leave the house, before I leave my sanctuary behind, I like to finish what I’ve started.
Today that’s a bottle of gin. Maybe some vodka too.
See, you drink before you go to the bar because you need to warm up, get the kinks out. But sometimes I lose track of the things I started, which isn’t my fault. My house gets messy, now that the maid won’t return, and the new bottles get mixed in with the empty and the half-full. Or is that half-empty?
If it’s being emptied, then it’s half-empty. If it’s being filled, then it’s still half-empty.
You don’t call someone half-alive. You call them half-dead. Like me, with my bottles of brown, yellow, and clear liquids, overflowing ashtrays, and the hole left by a girl whose name I forget – all these things: holes in space – holes I fill every day, fill and refill but get nowhere because the liquid drains through the holes, onto the floor, leaving me half-empty.
The winter had settled in and we were cold all the time. The generals had ignored the reality of the changing seasons and left us without proper winter clothes – now we bulked up with regular uniforms and wrapped ourselves with handmade scarves from our wives and prayed the war would be over by Christmas.
We were on the outskirts of the village in which we spent October believing the enemy wouldn’t attack. How wrong we were. The winter counter-attack had come fast and caught us unaware. The enemy’s big steel tanks rolled into town with lightning-quick efficiency and we were powerless to stop them as man after man was cut down. Within two days we had pulled out and moved back down the road, beaten and nearly defeated, to another town that was easier to defend. To be reinforced. But now we were back, a month or so later, pressing into the town and the enemy, hoping to drive up to the river where we would await more orders.
I led my men through the forest, quietly, me and my squad, plus another squad of infantry and two men with the anti-tank weapon. The snow crushed beneath our feet and our packs jingled dully. I held my submachine gun tightly against my chest and motioned for the group to flank the small cottage ahead of us – my teams approached the town from the north, while the other platoons moved in on the east, toward the church and its collapsed roof, and the west, trying to control the bridge covering the icy stream we were too cold to cross.
We held this house before, the one that once housed a family of four and their grandmother, all short people who loved laughing and sitting around the wooden table drinking late into the night, telling story after story about how things used to be, like when the son raised the two brown and white hounds that liked to track in mud across the stone floor after the rain, and how the mother would cook pumpkin pie in the autumn, fresh pie every week. Only the upstairs window of the back bedroom, the one with the slanted ceiling, looked out on the forest, and, if the enemy was clumsy or stupid, we could approach unnoticed.
At the tree-line we hit the ground and hugged the trees, patiently examining the house, a once-beautiful house with small knickknacks and porcelain statues in the hall, gifts from the great-grandmother, one porcelain doll every birthday, that were now shattered and broken by bullet and mortar and explosions and death. I could still see the blast marks from the grenade that killed my machine-gunner.
But the world was silent. Things are good when it’s silent. Guns and grenades and bombs all make sound – a soldier doesn’t die in silence.
I motioned to my men and we ran toward the house as I tripped and fell face first in the muddy snow that jammed up my nose so I coughed and a hail of bullets exploded from the house, the cries and screams of death entering my men at super-sonic speed, giving them their last breath and I could only crawl behind a tree as the bullets sprayed and sprayed and killed my men.
And that’s how it happens – one moment you’re a soldier in a war that has nothing to do with you except you’re the one fighting it, and next moment you’re dead. Remembered, if you’re lucky, but most likely just a digit in the casualty column. All of your hopes and dreams, your history and loved ones, your favorite movies and books and that park you love to sit in on a sunny Sunday and watch the kids play and run with the dogs – all gone.
You were a person.
Now you’re a body.
And when the enemy ambushes you and the bullets rip through your cover and into you, passing through your leg in two places but nothing serious, you are in limbo. You’ve seen death. You know death.
This isn’t death.
Instead, as you scream and whimper like a baby and curl into a ball and grip your helmet and piss your pants, you can only hope to die, just so the terror will leave.
There’s a pulse to war – a sort of dying in time, when the battle takes over and the moment flexes, plucks people away from reality and replaces their souls with a vacuum. All the death, wrapped in the frame of a shrinking universe.
Humanity ticks away.
A man caught in this whirlpool can only exist in the primal muscle memory; his true being released to directly combat evolution. It is, in fact, as simple as flight or fight. Each man has an impulse, an expression engraved on his inner shell, that drives action at this moment when the truth of one’s own humanity is shown to all.
At that exact moment, all questions are released.
What you see is what you get.
Seconds, minutes, hours later, I found myself alone in the woods, the house of my failed attack out in front of me somewhere. The battle raged throughout the small town, tanks fired shells against each other and men in houses and trenches, mortar shells exploded into screams, the hail of bullets ending life after life. I don’t think the battle was going our way, but we were still fighting, which meant my men were alive out there, somewhere.
My leg throbbed in two places, the pain rang in my head, but I wasn’t bleeding. The red snow beneath me had cooled and coagulated the blood, but I bandaged my thigh to be safe. A branch cracked behind me and I rolled over and raised my rifle as my anti-tank crew crept toward me. We sighed in recognition.
“How is it?” I asked. Dirt covered their faces, features; their eyes were scared alert.
“We don’t know where to go,” one said and the other nodded. Like two lost schoolboys. I think they were my age, just over their teens and ready to become men. I nodded and swallowed hard.
“Let’s go find out,” I said and pointed back at the house where everything had gone wrong.
We crept along, our bodies pressed into the ground to keep low and out of sight. In war, a standing man dies – thousands of years of evolution washed away. You kept your head down or you got shot. And sometimes that meant crawling, slowly, pacing yourself, reaching your arms out to gain a few inches. Pausing. Drawing in a cautious breath. Testing the air, finding nothing.
Then sliding forward again.
A test of our instincts, test of our will.
A touch of fear. Take it slow and maybe you’ll live. So we wove our way, slowly, through the trees, until my dead men surrounded us and the house was ahead of us.
One man tapped my shoulder and pointed. Through the house – the holes blasted, the walls crumbling, the windows smashed – we could see two half-tracks on the other side, out on the dirt road that ran through the town. The enemy’s vehicles were monitoring the battle from back here, opting to stay out of direct combat. Half-tracks, you see, are armored trucks that carried strong anti-personnel weapons, but were lightly armored with open tops and backs. This made them highly susceptible to tanks and anti-tank weaponry.
I nodded and pointed. Two fingers to the eyes watch-out hand laid flat keep low index and pinky finger extended two enemies to kill.
They looked at me; destiny reflected in their eyes. They were not men anymore – they were numbers. I sent them forward, watched them crawl to the house, just as they’d been trained. Not two brave men who would die for their country, which is what the telegrams would say; not boys who needed time to grow and learn and discover themselves and fall in love and raise a family and nod asleep by too many whiskies at their daughter’s wedding; but now just part of the mass required to win a war.
They crawled through the back door – all but a broken frame – and the numbers tilted, a little bit, our way. One man can’t make a difference – one man’s death can start a war, not finish it – but one stacked on another, stacked in long rows and columns, numbers grown and built over battlefields and unmarked graves and prisoner camps where the men drink their own urine – the bulk of numbers matters.
These two men now, as they set up their gun, pointed it toward the first half-track, and fired, added numbers in one column. When the shell entered the cab and exploded, killing the enemy and making our job easier, they only enacted what the numbers dictated. No nation ever won a war by having more people killed, so you, as a soldier, only have two fates: kill or be killed.
They reloaded their gun and I heard a grind and a squeal. Through the trees I saw the enemy’s tank rolling toward the house as one man fired into the second half-track, killing the enemy again, tilting the scales again.
Then, just before the tank killed him and tilted them back, I moved quick, shoving my body off the ground, flying, gliding just around the trees and over the snow-covered boulder, right up on top of that tank. Yes, stood right there on the turret, where they can’t see you, and just thrust a grenade right in the cab of that tank, sending shrapnel through the crew and machines inside and saving my men, tilting the scales back.
I saved my men.
Yes I did.
I come to this bar every day and I see mostly the same people, all drinking themselves to death. Oh, they might not be doing it on purpose – though some are – but the only reason to visit the same bar and drink the same drinks, day after day, is to quicken the pace, hurry the process. Get death looking in your direction.
These guys and gals spend their only money on booze. And maybe cigarettes. But that’s it. So they come to drink their lives away, drink at the Lamb’s Head everyday, leave the bar sick to their stomachs after drinking for 12 hours without eating.
Just me and them.
But like I said: I’m different.
Back to war.
We had pursued the enemy across the countryside. It was now springtime and everything blossomed at once – Friday came the winter showers, Saturday were springtime flowers.
We wept at the colors; an entire rainbow grew around our ankles and shoulders. As we walked the muddy roads that bogged our tanks and half-tracks, I saw a gray tree, with spindly branches on a gnarled trunk, sprout green blossoms, then shift the pitch of the glowing sun as bright pink flowers blinked into existence before my eyes.
Our attitude changed then – the collective hold of morale on the men; the aura of humanity that binds or destroys – the connection between us tightened and we knew it.
So when we saw the chateau on the hill, holding the sky and the whole valley under its gaze, we were unfazed. Even with its tall towers, ivy-covered brown brick walls, and dark windows, we were unchanged. We laughed and joked and the mud dried under our feet.
Then our scouts reported back: the enemy was approaching the chateau from the opposite side. I set my men into motion – we had to get inside the building before the enemy. Only then would we be safe from its power over the valley.
How a building like that could stay untouched by the war I don’t know. We ran up the hill as the vehicles attempted to navigate the sharp incline as best they could. For a moment, when we reached the building, we were held in its dark shadow that blotted out all the colors of the valley, and we felt afraid.
That the war had left this building untouched, with the walls whole and the windows solid, was unusual – this land was scarred and we had found some strange sanctuary.
But then glass smashed above us, shots rang out, and men died – we had a war to fight.
We rushed into the building with guns blazing – we would not be broken. Separated into squads we moved through the house, up and down stairs, blasting holes in walls and doors, killing and being killed. We had no time to stop and wonder at the ancient tapestries depicting a time of peace and tranquility, with people and plants and animals living peacefully together, of sunsets and sunrises that could be enjoyed without fear of death. Nor could we take in the roomy grandeur of the house, how it was easy to move between rooms and down halls, how spaces opened up to let you breath, then closed into halls so you could move quickly. The house was alive and we were killing it.
And so the gun battle continued. I rallied my men at one point, bringing them together to race up a stairway against a machine-gunner who paused to reload – we ran over each other and up the stairs, throwing a grenade into his lap and blowing him into a million red bits.
This was war, and we were winning.
I took two men to check the main tower. We opened a door and entered the dark stairwell – a faint light fell down the stairs and we climbed the steps quietly. Listening. We watched above us, weapons poised, and ascended until the light from the sky brightened the stairway entirely through a small window shining warm rays in the dust.
I looked out on dead men sprawled across the courtyard below me. My men and the enemy, together in death. Together in the vacuum.
Finally we came to a landing with a large wooden door.
I knelt to check my rifle as one of my men opened the door, which exploded, knocking me to the floor, driving a foot-long wood shard through one man’s throat and disintegrating the other’s head.
My head rang, and I could hear nothing.
But there were stars. Lots of them.
I stood and wiped my face, saw the smeared blood across the back of my hand. My rifle was below me, so I picked it up and stumbled forward into the room.
He was there – the enemy, a man of the country that brought mine to ruin, brought us into war. He stood too, before me, rifle in hand, blood across his face, eyes open wide, so wide.
I was there with the world – facing him and his dirty blonde hair that needed a trim. But his face, his face was smooth and shaved just that morning under a willow tree by a babbling brook where the sun reflected in his eyes.
They were too slow to see my movement as he turned to the window, pulled at his neck as I pulled my trigger and his soul dropped away in that moment, the vacuum popped as he left.
Blood spilled out: one more number.
I knelt, turned him over, saw the silver locket in his hand. I knew him then, that enemy of mine – he wanted to throw that locket away from me, across the valley, back home to his loving wife and children who missed him so, so his wife could have this special bounty.
Which was now mine.
So there, in the quiet afternoon, standing at the window with the green and golden valley below me, the sun shining in my eyes and the enemy at my feet, I held the locket on my palm.
It was a chest, with a tiny lock.
I flicked the lock open with my dirty fingernail and out flew a fairy, a tinkerbell, a tiny gold woman with wings who sparkled and glowed in the sun and flew before my eyes, this little woman with a smile and a little body she smiled at me, touched my nose, spread her golden glow within me, heating my head and my heart and my toes and flying away, over the battlefields, trenches, headquarters, dead men and more dead men, and then finally away to another land – her home across the great ocean and fields and hills and town and the home so far away.
I empty my glass, watch the bartender wipe the spills away.
He wants to fill my glass.
I say no.
I say there is still light outside.
The light from outside is fading, but lingers enough to outline the doorway so I can see my way home. It’s not enough to know about the outside. Not enough to see the sun in the sky. To know the outside, you must be outside.
Inside is not outside.
So I leave the bar behind. Move on.
Out to the light.