Desert and hard light stretch toward the horizon. The sky is swallowed up in the sun. I look to my left and there is David, and I am overjoyed to see him. I am stupid with happiness, I am holding back tears because that’s what you do. I want to tell him that I met his family just like he asked, and his son is beautiful, his wife has been true. David looks at me and we laugh at something as we bump along the road. We have been pretending we are brave so long we believe we are brave. Bravery is like a sport we practiced until everyone said we were aces. We are young, I notice. We are always young.
Then it happens and David is no longer David; David is pieces on my face, on my helmet and uniform. So funny! If you watch movies today. Lt. Dan, you ain’t got no legs! or something like that, not so funny when you are hosing half-dried blood and bone grit out of a Jeep, blood that isn’t yours because you survived.
While it is still dark I go down to the creek. The creek erases everything. There was no water, no rivers or streams in the desert. No burbling sweetness to calm the bullshit, sorry.
Sorry, Mom and Dad! And town, and country. Thanks for the parade. Thanks for the newspaper article. The use of my childhood bedroom until I “get back on my feet.” Thanks for all of that. Thanks, thanks, thanks. Always thanking people. People sometimes thanking me, when I still clearly belonged to something. Not so much anymore.
At night, always meeting David. Sitting, lying by the creek, wondering what the word future means. Listening to the hypnotic sounds of time passing, thank god. When I open my eyes, listening to the water, my eyes focused upward, sometimes the sky is still black. This is the hardest time, the night, the calm dark. It seems like there is no way out of here.
I come back smelling like forest, like creek. Like an animal emerging from hibernation—a long sleep with no dream. I wish this were the truth. I do not share the secret of the rushing water. I have not shared David. Where do you go at night? My mother looks worried. How to tell her? How to tell any of them.
They all look so worried, so thankful. Mostly worried. Always looking at me sideways. Angry, maybe. Resentful, as if they have been watching a bad magic show. Here comes the magic trick of the bird in a hat. The bird goes in the hat, and the hat is shown to be empty. The audience has faith the bird remains alive where no one can see. But in the end things go wrong. The magician brings back a different bird. Trick ruined.
Lying on the bank of the creek, listening to the water speak its coded language to me. Looking at the night sky. I am sure the night is only veiling the day. I can see the brightness beyond the black, shining through holes as if through a piece of pierced leather. If only I could get back there. If only I could climb through one of those holes, I would find the desert, the sun waiting for me like a dry, comfortless womb. I would find David there and stay, maybe. We would both sit in the sand and remember the clear air of home that filled our lungs so easily. We would talk about home. We would imagine that any gap caused by our absence will be immediately closed upon our return, like a hidden seam sewn in patched trousers.
I lie there in the darkness, nothing but tree and creek and dirt, and I close my eyes. Behind the dark is light, behind the dark is where bones are burned white and arid wind turns them to dust. Where good and bad bones are laid to rest alike. Dear God, let me get there, I pray. Let me get back to where I came from. Don’t leave me here, in this unfamiliar place. The prayer never changes.
I wait until the pricks of light disappear and the sky blurs gray. The waking cries of birds drown out the creek’s murmur, and I know it’s time to leave.