It was the middle of November as I sat in my favorite maple tree and played war. There was no wind that day and I heard the hollow rustling of leaves behind the hemlocks up in the ravine. I knew, from the sound of the autumnal footsteps growing closer, that it was my neighbor. I watched, as he dragged a deer through the row of white pines that lined his yard. He wore a red flannel jacket and grey wool pants that were spotted with mud. I called him Uncle Johnny back then. He slowed down, smiled, and waved as he made his way across the yard, pulling the buck by his antlers with one arm. I waved back as I pulled myself up to the next branch, then quickly fell back into the comfort of my imagination.
There was snow in the forecast for the next day, and, like any 10 year old, I prayed for a blizzard; I prayed for a snow day, but it didn’t come. It seemed too cold for it to snow. After school, I took the trail towards the ravine where I looked for blood-stained leaves. I had a long branch in my hands, pretending that it was a loaded musket gun and pretending that I was a Mohawk hunting a deer; I was looking patiently for my target’s blood trail. After an hour of traversing the ridge, I gave up. The crimson blood was lost in the red, brown, and orange autumn blanket under my feet. The sun began to set and the chimney smoke began to rise, so I gave up on my little hunt and made my way back towards the neighborhood, kicking leaves and snapping branches on the way.
Considering my parents worked late, I would often eat dinner with Johnny and his wife. I went over for dinner that evening. He was a postman and would get out of work early while she stayed home to take care of their young one. I cut through the giant pines, up the small hill, past the piles of leaves lining their driveway, and into the open garage where Johnny was fixing his snow blower. I sat down on a pile of firewood and watched him work. After the maple tree, his garage was my favorite place to sit. It smelled like gasoline and was cluttered with old tools and fishing rods. At all times, there was the crackling of old tunes from a radio I could never find. I sat there while he worked and he talked about how much he was looking forward to ice fishing this winter. He loved to hunt and fish. It was something he did, companionless, every day after work.
His wife called for us to come in for dinner as he went on about Black Pond’s abundance of large mouth bass. She opened the screen door and the warm glow of their home poured out into the dusk. She stood there, a silhouette, with one hand on her hip and the other holding the front door open, waiting for us to move along. Johnny grabbed a rag off of his toolbox and wiped his hands down, he closed up the garage, and then we made our way toward the house. I ate fresh venison and drank cold milk that evening.
A few nights later, my father and I sat around with Johnny while his wife and my mother were out with some of their friends in the village. The two of them drank beers while I ate pie and ice cream. We all sat around the kitchen table as they talked about the coming winter and last year’s snowstorms; I sat there, swirling pastry and melted ice cream with my spoon, lost in thought. With the mention of winter, my mind jumped to Christmas. Presents and tackle football in the snow with my cousins. They began to reminisce about the old days, but I, in thought, was still tearing through the wrapping underneath the sparkling pine in my living room.
Eventually, I noticed that the conversation turned into one concerning the Vietnam War. I was still heedlessly taking in a few words until I saw Johnny’s face and was returned to the table where the golden beer cans sparkled under the kitchen light. The same overhead light threw shadows under Johnny’s pointy cheekbones. He played with his black mustache while his eyes swam through the blur of his peripheral. His eyebrows furrowed as he dropped his hand away from his face. He looked so angry, but spoke so softly. I couldn’t understand much, only that my father expressed empathy for Johnny saying, ‘God damn them.’ He grabbed him another golden beer can.
Johnny talked and my father listened like this for another 20 minutes or so. The fireplace in the next room crackled and hissed, and as Johnny went to go feed it with a piece of dusty wood, my father patted me on my head, signaling that it was time to go home. He tossed the empty cans into the trash as I watched the fusillade of flames contrast Johnny’s body. He knelt there, staring into the fire, his shoulders gently trembled. I knew that he was crying. My father said in his kind voice, ‘we’re going to head out, John. I’ll pop in tomorrow night to watch the game.’
Standing up and turning around with a gentle but forced smile, he said, ‘Yeah, you got it. See ya, boys.’ The fire had dried his tears, leaving shining trails down his hollow cheeks like a snail’s route across the neglected statue of a hero.
On our short walk home, I asked my father what The Vietnam War was. He told me that it was a war that we, as Americans, were engaged in; a war that we, as foreign invaders, lost. He told me that he was pardoned from the draft because of a knee injury he sustained during a high school football game. Already knowing the answer, I asked him if Johnny was in the war, but the cold air had glaciated my father’s thoughts and he told me that he’d tell me more when we got inside. While we made our ascent up the narrow stairs towards the front door, our billowing exhales followed us up. I imagined that my breath was the rise of smoke from my machine gun. At that moment, I was still a child and I knew nothing about the gravity of war.
It was around 9:30pm when we settled in. Thankfully, it being a Friday night, my father let me stay up late to hear Johnny’s story. We sat down in the living room, he in his chair, while I draped a mosaic quilt around my shoulders. My mother, returned soon after we had, kissed my forehead and said good night. I pulled the blanket, my grandmother’s patchwork, up to my chin as my father established his exordium with poignancy. ‘The war did not kill Johnny – this is something that is obvious to you – but,’ he punctuated his discourse with a deep breath as he brought his eyes up from his folded hands, ‘you see, the soldiers that were injured or died in battle were the decorated casualties; those that came home physically sound – uninjured – are the casualties left in their camouflage.’ Kyrie, our grey dog, entered the living room, jumped onto the couch, and rested her head on my tiny legs.
For the most part, the somber story has been obscured by time, leaving me with a sequential abridgment of my father’s narrative: Johnny fought his war inside of a tank; the tank acted as a flamethrower, burning anything in its path; after almost two years confined to his tank, Johnny watched his whole battalion die through the hatch; he held his commander’s torso together for some time before seeing that he had died; after realizing that he was the only survivor, he moved off of the road and into the jungle where he hid in the labyrinth-like undergrowth; and there he waited for several days. Starving in unconsciousness, he was eventually spotted by a group of American soldiers. He fought the remainder of the war in the opaque barracks of his mind – in a hospital bed.
As I was trying to fall asleep that evening, I pictured Johnny inside of his tank, watching through the peephole as a flurry of ashes shrouded the dead. The thought of human impermanence – a contagious thought, marked by the coarse grey hairs in my father’s sideburns, and the blue veins running down my mother’s wrist – filled my head. Imagining my life after the death of my parents was terrifying. The contagion moved towards my own mortality. After some time, during a lull in thought, I heard the gentle breathing. Kyrie was with me somewhere in the darkness, putting me to sleep with her deep, immutable sounds of respiration.
The next morning I woke to a thick silence; a silence that was sporadically cut by the rattling of a loose windowpane. Then hearing the muffled scraping of a frail plastic against the unbound gravel, I knew that it was snowing and now my father was shoveling. As I stretched my arms and legs, releasing the warmth from under the covers, I flattened the cold sheets in the barrens of my bed. I jumped up, made my way toward the window, and watched as the rioting winds threw snow in every direction. It was Saturday morning and after putting on my snowsuit, I ran out the back door and turned the corner towards the front yard, kicking through the powder. Johnny and my father were talking out by the road. My father was leaning on the shovel, gesturing towards the sky with his other hand as Johnny threw his rifle over his shoulder. He bent down to pet Kyrie, who was biting at the snow. Yelling out to the men, I ran across yard toward my tree. They waved as Kyrie’s head turned towards me. I waited for her to run, but she stayed still. Mounting the first branch, upside down with my legs wrapped around it, I heard the shoveling start again. As I climbed up to my favorite spot, Johnny wadded through the snow. I watched him step through the tall pines towards the ravine. The wind howled and whipped through the branches that I held onto, burning my fingers and filling my eyes with tears.
MICHAEL DE ROSA is an American writer of short fiction and poetry living in Manchester, England. His writing has been featured in Anima, Blue Lake Review, Chronogram, Offline Samizdat, and Otoliths.