J. F. Glubka In the Snake’s Mouth

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J. F. Glubka’s fiction has appeared in Southwest Review.

J.F. Glubka

In the Snake’s Mouth

Much is forgotten and much is remembered. It’s spring here. Sun and rain. Four days a week I home-school our son. Yesterday we learned science by digging up juniper stumps with hand tools. I explained the levers at work in the chop of an ax, the potential energy in a cheese sandwich. We speak often of history. I want the impossible, that he should know all the truth of it and none of the pain. Today he asked me what I did in that war which has been finished now thirty years. I hesitated before I spoke of the animals, the heat, and food. He wanted to know about guns, artillery, aircraft. He’s nine. I’m fifty-two and he is my first, my only. I write now to make a record. Where I’ve forgotten, I embellish. What is most horrible is most true. I never learned to sing. The boy’s mother does it beautifully. In my fashion, here is a song.


* * *

First the birds and bugs became strangely quiet, then a strong wind blew up river, rattling the forest and rippling the canvas over our heads. Hot rain fell for nine days without stopping. When a pair of Aussies wrestled in the muck, the rest of us cheered and scratched our bug bites. The rain made us clean until we stank from the fungus that grew in every nook of our ever-damp flesh. We wondered if the river would rise high enough to flood the cage and if the guards would bother to save us.

I was one of twenty-seven prisoners, all of us foreigners, including British, Australians, Indians, French, Nigerians, Brazilians, two Americans, and one man each from Norway, Russia, and South Africa.

The cage was built in a rain forest, tucked against a hillside three hundred yards from the Kalamoamoa river, a tributary of the Vahanoa, on the banks of which the French had executed five hundred captured rebels by machine gun and cannon in August of 1909. The guards lived in a concrete pillbox, shrouded in brush at the hill’s crown. Supplies arrived by boat. When they left their shelter they descended on narrow machete trails. The guards bathed and did their laundry once a week at the water’s edge. This was the only time we saw them in a pose like innocence. The cage was fenced on four sides, all chain-link and razor wire. A net was strung over our heads, supporting ninety-eight squares of mottled brown and green canvas which gave us relief from the sun and camouflage from fly-overs. The canvas was torn in dozens of places where the rain fell in urinary streams. A second fence lay three feet past the first. The gap between the fences, a place of thorny weeds and quick sand, was our purgatory. Sometimes colorful birds landed there and we tried in vain to coax them within hand’s reach. At times the cage invited lizards, frogs, and snakes. Some of these we kept briefly as pets and others were destroyed instantly depending on a man’s whim. Despite our hopes, we never saw a cat or dog. A sheet of cracked concrete, four feet wide and mostly level, stretched halfway down the length of the cage’s south edge. We called it the strip. Its original purpose was not clear but it gave us a place to sit or pace free of the mud. The cage’s single gate was on the south side. The guards were short and stocky, southern Manao, and therefore presumably Buddhists. Their hands were large for their stature and they were never seen without a cigarette.

We lived without shoes, razors, soap, or tobacco. Those of us who’d been soldiers wore the rags of our old uniforms. When they rotted from our bodies we went naked or fashioned skirts from the rags. We were fed one dish for our two daily meals, a miserable and mutating broth which might contain the butt ends of carrots, potato skins, fish bones, chicken feet, rice, sand, onions, and woody splinters.

There were three Americans when they put me in the cage. After my third month, Bandon cut his own throat with a scrap of green glass he mined from the dirt. After that it was only Lidstrom and myself who could speak of life in the States.

Whatever we did they saw. If we sweated, pissed, shat, argued, prayed, sang, fought, ran races, wrestled for phantom prizes, held contests of memory, shivered, and used each other’s bodies for pleasure, they saw it. Whenever they wished they took us away for interrogations, and returned us silent, broken, and hollow. We’d been pilots, sailors, and grunts, but also NGO workers and thrill seekers. On the basis of our presumed trade and nationality they held us without trial, evidence, conviction or explanation.

* * *

“There was a girl,” Van Pelt said. “In Osaka. She was built like a child. Perfect teeth. Prescription opiate abuser. She demanded I sodomize her at eight-thirty p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The usual method was too subtle. I believe we were re-enacting a childhood event.”

“I’ve heard this one,” Lidstrom said. “Tell about the Zulu princess.”

“She was adopted by Germans. Her father was a great pianist. Her mother was a surgeon of the brain. On the first date we fucked three times, in a park and a car and finally on the roof of her building while lightning showed miles away. She had a scar like a question mark in the arch of her left foot.”

“If you had a time machine where would you go?” Lidstrom said.

“I get killer motion sickness,” I said. “Don’t like flying. Don’t like boats. Sounds like bad news.”

“Prison must be your slice.”

“That’s right. When you guys do your Steve McQueen don’t fucking wake me up.”

“I’d go back to the beginning,” Van Pelt said. “I’d do everything the same way only enjoy it more and then I’d burn the plane ticket that brought me here.”

Hordes of bugs bit us day and night. We suffered fierce fevers, nearly constant diarrhea, and painful rashes of the feet and groin. A common topic of conversation concerned one’s own resistance to starvation. We assumed we were malnourished. But we weren’t doctors. For this ignorance, we should’ve been thankful.

In my former life I slept with five women, loved two, and made one child which was destroyed by our agreement in the second month of gestation.

Lidstrom was married to a California blond, an ex stripper and ink-fiend named Kansas. They had one child, a boy called Archer. Lid looked like a math teacher but he’d come to the island carrying a rifle with the Marines. They took him passed out drunk from a video arcade. The last gift he gave his son was a pocket knife.

Van Pelt had never married. He was South African, Jewish, blond, tall, well muscled, educated as a geologist and an interrogator, a speaker of five languages. He walked with an old man’s gait at thirty-nine and claimed sixty-three lovers over his lifetime. He could describe most in anatomical detail, including an Irish midget and a six-foot four-inch handballer with a pierced clitoris. He’d been in the hands of four factions in five years. In the course of his captivity, they’d broken most of his fingers and toes, ribs and arms, the clavicles, and the nose more than a dozen times.

Everything that could be asked among us was asked.

Some men guard their secrets. Others let everything spill. They drench you.

Lidstrom was afraid of being sodomized, impotence, scorpions, lightning, cancer, his wife’s death, drowning, debt, senility, and his own humiliation. He never spoke of the latter except in private confessions. Van Pelt simply feared death. The rush of time. The loss of his mind. The utter annihilation of it. I listened to them in the dark with great care as I’d listened to everyone I’d met since coming to the island. When I was new to the war I took careful notes everywhere I went. When they first put me in the cage, exiled from paper and pen for the first time in my life, I imagined the words would pile up inside my head like a great unreleased pressure.

And me. My great fear was that I’d become my father: unstable, angry, paranoid, and finally violent toward those closest to me.

Most days Lidstrom and I played a game of our own invention. Angels and devils. You take turns. You play the angel or the devil. Pick some famous person or event and describe how you’d change history by tipping the scales in favor of good or evil.

Example. Oswald perches in the Texas Book Depository. He’s taking notes for a novel about Kennedy’s assassination by a leftist recluse. He’s been inspired to trade the revolutionary’s life for that of the artist two weeks earlier after a one-night stand with a bohemian prostitute. JFK lives and wins re-election in ’64. The book sees print in ’65 and sells 100,000 editions. Oswald goes on to write two dozen thrillers. In the ’70s he has a widely reported feud with Norman Mailer which culminates in a fistfight. In 1968 Warren Beatty stars in the film adaptation of Dallas, November. Kubrik directs the picture.

Example. John Lennon fatally shoots Paul and Linda McCartney at their English home in March 1970, shortly before the last Beatles album is released. Using thirty gallons of gasoline, Lennon begins a process which will burn the McCartney home to the ground, before he flees on foot through a posh London neighborhood, shirtless, barefoot, and armed with an American hunting rifle. For no apparent reason he shoots at a dog walker, and wounds the animal. Because he’s recently shaved his head and facial hair the police who pick him up the next day, asleep in a park, don’t immediately recognize him. Lennon peacefully surrenders the gun and tells an officer that he’s the prophet Demetrius. Before the singer can go to trial he’s fatally shot at close range by a McCartney fan.


* * *

The day the rain finally stopped, Lidstrom and I sunned on the strip in our tattered skivvies. After fifteen minutes we rubbed mud on our skin to block the UV and keep the bugs away. We could see the tops of distant mountains and faintly hear shelling in the foothills. Lid slapped a hard rhythm on his thigh. Once upon-a-time in St. Paul he’d been a heavy metal drummer.

“Over here, gunner,” Lidstrom said. “My man, my heart begs for your hot steel. Take my legs, baby. Take this nose. These accoutrements. This excess baggage. Shine me full of diamonds.”

“He won’t respect you if you want it too badly,” I said. “You’ve got to pose, pout, play hard to kill.”

“I’ve got a notion to do like a rain dance. Telepathical. Deep wizardry. The howitzer waltz.”

Finch, one of the Brits, approached, grinning, his face as thin and pale, despite the tropical sun, as a doll carved from bone.

“You wanna hear my dream?” he said to Lidstrom.

“Was it a fuck dream?” I said.

“A prime one.”

“I dream pussy all day,” Lid said.

“You ain’t had this one, brother.”

“Keep it. I’m working on my breath. If I can get into the nirvana place, I’ll realize this shit-show is a dream. A perfect circle. Just me talking to myself.”

“Have you been eating the mud as well?”

“No, man. Pure sunshine. All-you-can-eat. I’m like blue-green algae. Homeostatic. Master of my destiny, captain of my soul.”

“Is this man sane?” Finch said to me.

“I can’t imagine a satisfactory control group for comparison,” I said.

“The visions continue,” Lidstrom said. “I dreamed I devoured a cloud of butterflies. They were symbols for our sins. I’m going to be a Christ figure. Shepherd of mankind. Y’all ought to bow in my presence.”

“Madness,” the Brit said. “Pure Yank madness.”

“Bless you, my son,” Lid said.

* * *

Manaodasa sits in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar and south of Sri Lanka. Her land mass is roughly equal in size to Idaho’s. Highlands, rain forest, and river valleys compose most of the interior. Her natural resources include uranium, petroleum, coal, diamonds, timber, rice, cinnamon, coconut, and shellfish.

Ninety percent of the islanders are Manao. They speak an Austronesian language, borrowing liberally from French and Arabic. Before they traded shots with boys from Texas, they learned modern war by battling the Soviets. Before the Russians they fought the French and British. Before the Europeans it was the Arabs and Malagasy, and before them it was clan warfare, cyclones, sharks, and malaria.

A third of the Manao are Muslim and the rest are Buddhist, by way of Ceylon. Both sides have animism in the blood. The most common household shrine honors Raga, lord of chaos, angel of love and accidents, one of God’s three children. A hermaphrodite, her body is popularly rendered as a brutal compromise between snake and tigress, a monster equipped with three eyes, seven hearts, and ninety-nine teeth. Practitioners appease her by marking their arms and legs with ashes which simulate tooth and claw wounds. To win favor they serve her likeness the blood of fish, goats, dogs, or menstrual women, according to ability and desperation.

Hostilities began when the president and his family were assassinated. A video, showing the gang rape of the president’s twin daughters, fueled a secondary massacre. There were more vids. Reprisals. Beheadings. Immolations. Slavery returned. Brigades of child soldiers. The method of execution used by one faction required a deep earthen pit bristling with sharpened eucalyptus stakes. A mob carried the naked and bound victim to his fate. The fall was sometimes preceded by prolonged mutilation with broken glass. The captors swayed nine times with the victim in their arms before they flung the poor soul onto the spears. They called this punishment “jumping into the snake’s mouth”.

The number nine is significant in the national mythos. God vomited the world and ate it up again eight times before he made the ninth world, the one we call earth and home and history.



* * *

In the night they returned the Russian we called Ivan Ivanovich. His great-grandmother was the second most decorated female sniper of the Great Patriotic War. His grandfather won two gold medals playing with the Soviet hockey team. An uncle was a grandmaster of chess. His father invented a new kind of microchip and made a fortune before he killed himself. Three of his brothers were doctors. Ivan had been a convoy driver on the Highway to Hell, what the maps called National Road 23. Among his six siblings, Ivan Ivanovich was a spectacular failure.

Ivan limped a few steps when the guards let him loose. He coughed and fell to one knee. We took hold of him, found him a seat on the strip, and formed a circle. Three dim lamps posted along the fence lit up the yard after sundown. His face was bruised worse than any day-after prizefighter and his feet were heavily bandaged. He smiled and revealed a span of five or six missing teeth.

“Give the news,” he said. It took us a while to decipher his statements. His injuries had not improved his command of English.

“We missed you,” Lidstrom said.

“Shit. Don’t tell me shit. Nobody missed Ivan. Give something desirable. Who is buggering who? What has fallen from the sky?”

“Night before last NATO dropped ice cream cones and diamond rings. A thousand each. We hid the rings up our asses and ate the ice cream.”

“What flavor?” His thumbs were black and purple and crooked.

“Smoked pork chops and caramel apples.”

“I smell it on your breath.”

“Let’s have a spectacle,” Lid said. “A spectacle for Ivan Lazarusovich. The man who walks out of hell. Prince for a day. Prince of the rats.”

“I request entourage of beautiful girls. Nineteen years old with fat asses. Also refreshments. Fried food. Beer. Orange juice. Also music. Led Zeppelin and Chinese acrobats.”

Some of the men fashioned a throne from mounded dirt. Others made a cushion from three pairs of trousers. Lidstrom convinced fourteen men to organize themselves into two teams of seven. For a ball we used a flight suit knotted around a bundle of socks. Lidstrom made the rules. Rules are, you can throw the ball, catch it, or carry it in one hand in front of the body. Defenders can steal the ball or push the ball-carrier. We dug shallow trenches for goals. You cross the line with the ball and you score. You play until nobody wants to play anymore. Lid called this game smashem-crashem. In the Minnesota of his boyhood, they played with a soccer ball, garbage cans, hockey helmets, and shoulder pads. Perhaps Roman soldiers made similar sport with wayward hours.

Lidstrom assigned me to the opposition. Our best man was huge yet nimble, a Nigerian we called King because of his alleged connection to royalty. Lid told us to start with the ball. We gave it to King and ran a wedge ahead of him. It was a mockery of strategy but it took four men to bring him down near their line. In minutes both sides were sweaty, muddy, and tired. Four or five bloody noses. A twisted ankle. During every pause we complained of defective knees, shoulders, elbows, and groins. Despite this, we smiled and laughed between plays. The other men made themselves rowdy spectators, watching from dirt seats. Ivan cheered the loudest, howling like he’d lost his mind.

The ball became an anonymous clod. Mud in our hair. Up our noses. Clumped between our toes.

The score was 5 3 in our favor when Ivan demanded an intermission.

“For this Superbowl at world’s end we must name the combatants, like Cowboys and Forty-Niners,” Ivan said.

Lidstrom called his team the Beautiful Losers.

“We will be Dogs of War,” King said. We barked for him and began again.

When the score was 20 18, advantage Losers, we walked to the other end. Ivan had demanded we play to twenty-one. I was exhausted. The sun was low. My left ankle and several ribs ached. It was the best time I’d ever had in the cage. The moon was full. The guards watched from behind their embers.

We gave the ball to King and advanced around him. I followed the play on our left wing. They swarmed King and he passed wide. The ball travelled rugby fashion down our string. I broke for space and beat the last man with speed. I looked behind me. Lidstrom hurtled across the field, outpacing every other pursuer. I heard his lungs working. I slipped and slid toward the line on my belly. Lid’s fingers tugged at my ankle. I spun and kicked and crossed the line on my back, the muddy rag thrust ahead of the line by inches.

We lost on the next possession. Among the men the worst injuries were a lost tooth and a dislocated thumb. I barely moved for days.


* * *

One day before lunch they took me. Five men with submachine-guns and pistols. They knocked me down and hit me with the butts and barrels of their guns. Metal cuffs for the hands. A wide leather belt around my waist. My wrists were locked and my ankles shackled. No way to run or kick. The other men watched. Lidstrom knelt and dug a clawed hand in the wet earth.

“It’s the big test,” he said. “You’ve got the stuff.”

A coarse bag over my head and the stink of other men’s scalps.

“I know you got the magic,” he said.

They put me on my feet, hit me, and yelled at Lid.

“Listen now!” he said. “Big voodoo. You’re a lizard. Cold-blooded motherfucker. They get the tail, it jumps off. You grow a new one.”

They marched me where they wanted me. When I staggered they struck my elbows and ribs. They spoke Manao excitedly to each other. We went uphill for a ways and suddenly there were stairs leading down. I understood only the words for quick, now, shithead.

When I was allowed to rest it was on my ass, seated on a hard surface, in a place that smelled like vinegar. I waited hours slumped on my side.

* * *

I heard the door and they hit me again, but only casually. They wanted me on my knees. I complied and was unmasked.

A man sat in a chair, holding a plain wooden rod in one hand, resting the other end on a meaty thigh. He wore baggy olive fatigues, with the cuffs of his pants rolled up to his knees showing bright red socks. His calves were thick and hairless. He smelled unpleasantly of garlic and his face betrayed a mix of boredom and agitation.

“Your name and nationality?” he said.

A second man sat at a large wooden desk with a small notebook in his hands. He smoked a cigarette and appeared disinterested. On the desk was a large plastic water bottle, a pack of cigarettes, a matchbook, and an automatic pistol.

“Benjamin Franklin Janikowski, United States citizen,” I said.

“What branch of military do you serve?”

“I’m a journalist. I have credentials.”

“I do not accept this answer. I know you have come to my country as an act of war and imperialism. Your countrymen wish to suppress my people like the Indios, the Filipinos, the Vietnamese, the Iraqis. We refuse. Your presence makes me unhappy. You will confess one hundred percent of your sins. I will remain unhappy unless you give me one hundred percent. Ninety-nine is no good.”

“I’m an American journalist. I have never served in the armed forces of any nation.”

He hit me on the crown of the head. My skull rang with the pain, but this was only a warning. The second, third, and fourth blows broke my nose, swelled my eye, and pushed multiple teeth into my head. I bled and fell on my side. The harness kept me from assuming the fetal position. I brought my knees up in defense of my exposed torso and waited for him to begin kicking. I spat and dabbed at loose teeth with my blood-slicked tongue. As quickly as he’d begun he stopped.

“You report nothing to no one. You live in my house now. I give you what you need. I tell you what you require. I ask a question and you speak the answer. I know when you lie. I smell your lies like shit and piss. You smell like America. Peanut butter and ketchup. You’ve seen too much video, read too many adventure stories. It has given you false impressions. I welcome you to reality.”

My tormenter’s enunciation was flawless.

“How old are you, Benjamin?”

“Thirty-one.”

“How long have you been in my country?”

“Two years.”

“Why did you come here?”

“I came as a journalist. I came to report on the war and the people.”

“Shit, piss, shit. Your words stink.”

He clubbed the backs of my thighs, my tailbone, neck, ears, elbows and wrists. He clamped a boot heel against the side of my skull and tapped my loose teeth with the rod’s end. My mouth filled with lightning and blood. He took a metal stool from the room’s corner and threw it at me from across the room. The seat’s edge struck my hip and sent a flare up my spine. Then he approached and used the stool’s feet to pound my toes and fingers. My joints filled with fire. He put the stool neatly back in the corner when he was done with it and I recognized the old blood stains bonded to the steel like rust.

“Do you believe in God?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Everything hurts.

“You are confused. I give you clarity. There are many gods. Monkey gods and fish gods, eagle gods and man gods. All gods are brothers and sisters in the same family as Manao and French and Chinese are one family. They do battle in heaven and hell like men fight in Manaodasa and over the earth. They never tire of war. On earth a man makes his own war inside himself and never tires of this game. His body is the furnace. He bakes a biscuit full of rocks and glass. He chews his destiny like a biscuit. He suffers in his mouth, in his belly, in his asshole. I’m the vehicle of your hell. I push you toward your end. You pull me toward mine. As the snake is delivered to the eagle’s hooks. As the turtle is delivered to the butcher’s block.”

More pain. Pain and blood. Everything swells, scabs, and scars. You bleed more than you think possible, but you don’t die from it. You wish to die and fear it at the same time. Grinding, aching, burning. You discover nine, twelve, fifteen, twenty-one species of pain.

When they left the room I lay in the dark on the bare concrete floor, hurt too badly to make use of the chair or the stool. When they returned it was only a light beating, long in duration, as if for the exercise only. The big one breathed hard when he finished. He was much bigger than any of the guards. The second man was thin and frail. I could easily imagine him sitting at a keyboard. He brushed his things from the desktop into a gray satchel and they both went away again. I watched them through the sliver afforded by the better eye. The bad eye was swollen completely.

Darkness. Door slam. Waiting.

I gave them names. Snake and turtle. Snake carries the stick. Turtle wields the pen.

Snake bares his fangs. Turtle withdraws into his shell.

I attempted a prayer to my mother’s three-headed God. Jesus, Mary, and the Ghost. I fell asleep and awoke to a half-dream: shimmers of false light behind my lids, a glowing triangle appeared and entered my brain between the eyes like a sniper’s twisting bullet, halting in the gap between the hemispheres, then plunging down my spine, stopping in the blackness behind my sternum, before blossoming into a cloud. My heart and lungs changed colors under the pressure of the blast wave. Pink, green, yellow, pink, green, yellow. I made a story in my head. Big-bellied Mary in the desert. She wants an aspirin but the pharmacy is miles ahead. Joseph helps her down from the donkey, lifts her skirt, and bends her over as she grips a date tree. Joseph looks like my father. Mary is my mother. This will cure what ails you, he says. He fills her up before he shudders and collapses in the sweet smelling sand. She lies beside him and strokes his bearded face. We love you, she sings, we love you forever, in sickness and in health.

My father was in preschool the day the towers were knocked down by ten mad and cunning men.

Palestine celebrated its independence from Israel when I was nine months old.

I was twelve when he left, twelve when he stabbed my mother with the blue-handled scissors and drove the family car away, twelve when I pressed a pink towel to her bloody neck.

The war began the same spring I graduated from Stanford. I spent the summer after college posing as an artist, taking pornographic pictures of thirty-nine women I met on the net. I slept with five of them and contracted chlamydia from one of them.

My best friend in childhood drowned on a family trip when we were sixteen. To explain this and other tragedies, including my father’s sickness, my mother relied on the bottomless mystery of God’s mind. If there is a divinity both infinite and kind, he must reckon us no more kin to himself than a man feels like a brother to the atoms in his wrist bones.

The room was infinitely dark when I was alone and painfully bright when Snake bit me. Turtle sometimes coughed, and farted very loudly once, but he never spoke.

They took away my clothes. I pissed and shat in buckets and the buckets were taken away. A graceful old man in sandals took my waste and brought my food. Fifteen minutes before each session he brought me a bowl of soup containing salt, rice, onions, greens, and shreds of chicken or pork. It was much better than the food they gave us in the cage. He spooned my mouth full, waited for me to swallow, and sometimes whistled a short tune. He looked me in the eyes. One day, the third or fourth, when I must’ve appeared like a beggar in hell, he touched the back of my neck and kissed my forehead. I named him Mother Bird.

A predictable feature of each session was the involuntary expulsion of the pre-session meal.

Mid-session hydration was administered with a huge gray sponge, every drop tasting of mildew.

On the fourth or fifth day, Snake read me a long list of questions concerning American military doctrine and strategy.

“What is average height and weight of American combat persons? How many calories does each soldier require per day? How many days of combat can he endure before total mental collapse? How many acts of rape by American soldiers on Manao women have you witnessed? How often have you taken part in atrocities, including arson, vandalism, desecration of graves and holy sites, murder, theft, assault, kidnapping, and sexual offences?”

I made up answers, a thousand answers to a thousand questions.

“Colonialism, Marxism, Jesus worship, Islam, and Western capitalism have all failed my people,” Snake said. “We reject your systems. There is Buddha nature in all men. A man needs to wipe himself clean of distraction. The Christian and the Mohammedan does not understand. He thinks a man is empty, and must be filled with God. He is mistaken. A clean soul is the fullest vessel. We overfill our cups with shit and piss. We are gluttons. We pour in the Bible, the Koran, Wall Street. Our suffering is cleansing. It doesn’t matter how many we lose to the struggle. We are renewed by our sacrifice. It gives us purpose.”

Snake led me into a shower room and poured lukewarm water from a bucket. I retained the belt, cuffs, and shackles. Something that smelled and stung like vinegar was sponged over my wounds. I hissed, curling my fingers and toes.

* * *

On the fifth or sixth or seventh day Snake introduced more personal questions.

“The name of your home province and city?”

“Portland, Oregon.”

“Describe this place.”

“There are many bridges. Tall buildings made of glass. The streets are filled with bicycles. Summer and winter are mild. Rain falls six or seven months of the year. People name their children after animals, trees, and herbs. The women are the most beautiful creatures in the world. All of them have tattoos and monstrous tits. The children are well-mannered. Boys are made to wear skirts until the age of thirteen to keep them humble. Girls are instructed in archery. All dogs are trained to shit in designated sand pits. Roses grow in every yard. No one ever commits suicide.”

Snake smiled.

“A good fairy tale. But you are wrong about the women. Manaodasa has the finest on earth.”

In the 18th century the Manao gained a reputation in the West for the beauty of their women and their permissive sexual mores. Islam was still only practiced by a small minority living along the northern coast and Christianity had yet to make significant inroads. Homosexuality and polyamory were widespread and without taboo. Oral sex was dispensed to strangers as a form of hospitality. The island became a fabled destination for whalers, slavers, and merchants from the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The whoremongers of Istanbul, Boston, and Paris sought out Manao girls to make the jewels of their stables. Manao women were thought to be remarkably hardy and passionate. “Their race is unusually resistant to the French disease . . . they are shameless with regard to any carnal act should they be stirred . . . but subservience is not among their natural traits,” a Portuguese doctor wrote in 1776.

“Tell me about your brothers and sisters,” Snake said.

“I don’t have any.”

“Tell me about your mother and father.”

“They’re dead.”

“What cause?”

“With my mother it was cancer. My father, I don’t know. He disappeared when I was a kid.”

“You are certain he is dead?”

“No. Not certain.”

“You report incorrectly.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Do not confuse fact and assumption. Tell me more about him.”

“He believed in reincarnation. He told me stories about his other lives. He had visions or hallucinations. He’d walk around on all fours, making animal sounds, crawling all over the house. He spoke in tongues. One day he bought new clothes and threw out all the old ones. White shirts, white pants, white shoes, everything white. Another time it was green. Another time it was black. My mother didn’t believe in doctors. She let him be that way.”

Snake sucked air through his teeth.

“Have you ever gone to your knees and made animal sounds?”

“No.”


“You carry him in your blood. Make animal sounds for me. Make the sound of a chicken.”

“I’m done.”

“You will obey because you are the dog and I hold the leash.”

“You’re nothing,” I said. “You’re not a soldier. You’re trash. A criminal and a coward. Fuck you.”

“I want you to bark like a dog. Howl like a wolf. Grunt like a hog.”

He put a leather glove over his right hand and slapped me until my eyes filled with tears and my nose gushed snot and blood. He used the rod to beat the bottoms of my feet and prodded my bad rib.

“Now I teach the unforgettable,” he said.

Snake left the room. Turtle tap-tap-tapped his gun against the side of the desk. The weapon was a Beretta M9, a former American service pistol of Italian manufacture. Nine millimeter. Fifteen rounds. It had replaced the M1911 in the late twentieth century. These are the notes you take in the beginning, when the war is fresh and new, and you haven’t yet learned to see between the facts. Like rungs on a ladder, these details give you a sense of safety. At some point you find yourself drowning in facts and you turn away from them. You look toward the mysteries.

Snake returned with two large plastic buckets filled with water. At his command I sat in a high backed steel chair as he slid a long board behind me. The board reached half a foot above my head and provided an anchor for Snake to restrain my head. The wood’s grain was rough. A splinter slipped under the skin of my shoulder. He used a coarse rope and tied me to the chair, starting with my forehead, looping it through my teeth and across my shoulders, down my abdomen, across my lap, thighs, shins, and ankles. Snake was firm and meticulous with the rope. Several times he unwound it to get a tighter fit. When he was done with the knots he stood behind me and tipped the chair back on two legs, bearing my weight in his thick arms. He lowered me nearly horizontal in a swoop and caught me and raised me up and lowered me again. One, two, three, four, nine times he dipped me before he let me fall. There was nothing to cushion my head beside the board and rope as it struck the concrete floor. I blacked out for a moment.

Snake covered my face with a heavy cloth that stank of mold. I understood my situation with perfect clarity. He poured water from the bucket. It was terrifically cold and filled my nose and mouth. Even when he stopped pouring, the wet cloth clung to my face, blocking my airways. I gagged and panicked and gnawed at the rope. More water. He used both buckets and went away and returned.

When he’d emptied four buckets he used the rod on my wrists, elbows, and knees, but this seemed to bore him. He showed me a switch-blade knife, displaying it’s sharpness by slicing a thin piece from the edge of his boot sole.

“It’s my mission to go deep. I will use every tool in my box to open the door of your heart. The door behind the door behind the door behind the door. No lock is too strong it won’t break in time. Even a mountain crumbles under the rain. I am wind, water, storm.”

Snake put away the rod and the knife. He wrapped his hands with cloth tape and fit a pair of leather boxing gloves over the tape. Turtle tied the stings.

“I show you my sport,” he said. “A Frenchman taught me at the age of seven. He began with a bamboo rod so long I could never hit him before he hit me. I was an orphan. Like you are now, Benjamin. A terror of the playing field. I had no trajectory. Child of chaos. So he put knots on my head. Boxing is a science of organization. You apply force according to rules. Force against force. You learn the limits.”

Turtle knotted the gloves. Snake had me stand. He gave me the option of dodging but I saw there was little advantage to it, bound, hobbled, and injured as I was. I let him hit me. The chest, the belly, the face. I fell down. He made me stand again. He gave me water. He hit me. I fell.

* * *

I remember this. We left early and drove for hours. In the mountains the radio signal went bad. We pulled over next to a trailhead. My father made a show of pouring our water bottles in the dirt. I was ten.

“We don’t need this,” he said. “We have a survival mechanism in our cells. We have to bring it out.”

We hiked without map or compass. After an hour we split off from the main trail. We were looking for a lake. Water like a mirror. He didn’t know the name but he’d been there when he was young.

“I’m thirsty,” I said.

“Be strong. There’s a bear inside you.”

“I’m not a bear. I’m thirsty. It was stupid. It was stupid how you dumped the water.”

“A bear doesn’t complain. He takes everything he needs from the forest.”

I ran from him, ran until my lungs hurt, and hid in the dirt and dry needles behind a log. He called my name, came close, then moved away. I waited, maybe an hour, before I stirred. I found the trail again but didn’t know which way to walk. I passed a row of gray snags knocked full of holes by woodpeckers. The trail took me uphill to a high place where I could see the road again. I knew it was the wrong way but I kept going. I made a story in my head. There was a big war and I’m the last boy on earth.

The lake was quiet and beautiful. Mud ringed the water. I walked toward the water’s edge and sunk to my knees. The harder I pulled the greater the suction. Finally I freed myself with my arms but the mud took both my shoes. Mosquitoes came. A whole swarm bit my neck, my ears, and arms, until I ran from them.

I found him asleep at the wheel. I was tired and thirsty. My feet ached.

“It was the wrong trail,” he said. “I went to the end. There wasn’t any lake.”

He drove us home and I said nothing, not to him, and not to my mother when she asked what happened to my shoes. In bed that night, I made up a new story. The government took my father and put a robot in his place. He looks the same, sounds the same, but he’s not. It’s his job to test me. If I pass they’ll take me away. I’ll be with my real father again. He’ll teach me to be a spy like him. In secret we’ll help our country fight its enemies. We’ll be heroes and no one will ever know.


* * *

Mother Bird came to me in the dark and brought a boy of thirteen or fourteen. There was soup, double or triple the usual portion, full of fish, garlic, and wine. The time was wrong, only a few hours since they took me. For once I knew I’d have time to enjoy a meal. I sat up and Mother spooned my mouth full. You will never know the wonder of that soup.

“Where are you from?” the boy said.

“America.”

“How do you come here?”

“Airplane.”

“Is my English good?”

“Yes.”


“I think so too. I practice with you. My French is better. Do you have French?”

“They taught me in school when I was a boy. I’ve forgotten everything.”

“I like English better. My uncle has no English and no French.”

“Tell your uncle I’m very grateful for his kindness.”

The boy exchanged Manao with the old man.

“He says it’s nothing.”

“He’s humble. Pay attention to him.”

“Were you a pilot?”

“No.”

“I thought you were a jet pilot. I was hoping. Were you a sailor?”


“No.”

“Why did you come to Manaodasa?”

“I wanted to be famous.”

“I don’t understand. What did you do before the war?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you do before your birth?”

“Before this life?”

“Yes, of course.”

I remembered a story my father told me.

“I was a carp in the bottom of a pond. A mudsucker. One day when I was young a man’s head was placed in the water. It fell to the bottom. Bugs stripped the flesh from the bones. The skull settled on a flat stone and I accustomed myself to its presence. One day when I was old and fat, four feet in length, there was a drought and the water shrank to a puddle. A boy waded into the mud and found me, slipped his arms around my body. I was weak. He hefted me to the bank. He sat down with me in the grass, my body across his thighs. I saw the sun directly for the first time. Its beauty overwhelmed me. The boy said he would take me to the river. He stood and began to carry me. Another boy soon came along and convinced the first one that they should eat me. They argued. The second boy produced a knife. He stabbed the first boy and ran. I was dropped in the grass. The wounded boy fell and lay over my body. His blood flowed over my scales and into my mouth. I gasped for breath. He stood up and cried because he didn’t have the strength to save both of us. I understood, but I had no way to tell him. Then he left me.”

He spoke to Mother Bird, who listened and nodded.

“What bad things did you do?” the boy said.

I said nothing.

“They have hurt you,” he said. “You’ve been punished. What was your crime?”

“My crime was thinking I would find clarity in a hurricane. You should leave now. Do as your uncle tells you.”

The boy spoke sharply to his uncle, who frowned. Mother Bird patted my shoulder and waited for me to finish my soup.

I couldn’t sleep. The rich soup sat heavy in my belly. I recalled a conversation with Van Pelt.

“The soul is shaped like clay,” he said. “Squeezed and smoothed and nicked. You carry the impressions of other souls in you like ghosts or fossils. Not one, never that easy. A dozen. Perhaps it’s like a river and its tributaries. The anger of some loss that existed in your grandfather is transmitted to you by your father, held in you for years, calcified, until you pass it on to your son. These things happen outside of logic and consciousness. Imagine the whole world packing ghosts about. This is my explanation for the ordinary madness of war and murder. This is my use of the reincarnation doctrine.”

There were loud noises in the night.

Shells. Running in the halls. Shouting.

The door opened. Mother Bird held an AK-47 in his thin arms. He was shirtless, sweaty, and panicked. His smooth chest was black with tattoo ink: three busts, Che Guevara in the company of Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc.

He spoke hurried Manao. I understood GO and NOW as I lay on my side on the ground, blood crusted around my mouth, peering through the swollen slits of my eyes.

“Unlock me,” I said. “Please. Now.”

Bodies running in the halls. Shouting.

There is an old Manao battle song, chanted by entire crowds at the funerals of the esteemed.

Here is the dying place. At last we meet in the snake’s mouth. Here we are brothers again, as in the beginning. Raga has forged and sharpened ninety-nine daggers. We do not fear. Her vomit burns the eyes of the bravest. We do not fear. She has birthed a thousand lakes of fire. We do not fear. Here we make our choice.

Mother Bird slung his rifle over his shoulder and grabbed me under the arms. He hauled me to my feet with strength vastly beyond his size. There was a key in his hands. He unlocked my feet and put the key away. My hands and face were ruined, but my feet had healed just enough for me to put weight on them. My ribs were wrapped with thorns and set afire. No matter. To have good legs when you must run, to see a sliver of light in the dark, to understand without words, these are the only miracles I have known.

We went down the corridor and I ducked to keep my skull free of the ceiling. There was barely room for two men to pass side-by-side. We climbed the stairs. Ahead of us gunmen dashed toward daylight.

Ahead of us, heat and smoke blossomed.

Unbearable noise.

I fell. The next sounds enveloped me and then seemed to come from far away in a dull roar. Where there had been a wall was ruin. Blood. Smoke. Arms and legs. Mother Bird lay on top of me. I strained to lift myself. There was blood on both of us. I struggled for a long time to get out from under him. When my gaze met his face I saw that his temple was crushed. A man ran up the stairs behind me, shoved me, and kept running. I tried to pick myself up. I remembered the key and squatted, grabbing blindly at Mother Bird’s trouser pocket. Another man ran down the stairs, one of his arms hanging limply, a pistol in the other hand, yelling in Manao, praying or cursing. He gave me no trouble and disappeared down the stairwell. I probed the pocket. Fresh blood hampered my grip and my hands were swollen, every nail split or shed.

I found the key.

Shell after shell pounded the earth and shook the broken stairwell. I unlocked the cuffs and belt. The flesh under the leather was red and raw from chafing. I climbed over the rubble and came into a room with no roof and full of dead men. I passed through an open door and went into the daylight where I breathed smoke and felt the dissipated heat of high explosives.

I took a narrow path downhill, nearly tripping every third step, moving through a storm of falling leaves. I ran toward the cage.

The wire was down in several places. Blast craters. A severed foot. King was legless in the dirt. Below the chest his innards looked like nested eels.

Then the shells stopped. They were replaced by the crack-crack-crack of small arms.

I ran and fell, tripping on a downed tree. The trunk had burst open. A cobra, black and orange, as thick as my wrist, was impaled among the white splinters.

I ran to the river.

A guard ran downslope from me with a rifle. He turned, saw me, jerked the muzzle around. He spun and fell like a rag doll. There were others ahead of him, running at the water’s edge. Incoming rounds tore spouts in the water and took them from their feet. I jumped over the dead man and dove into the grass.

Heavy machine guns fired nearby, so loud and near they became the only sound on earth: beginning and middle and end.

I crawled backward and took the dead man’s weapon, released the magazine, saw the brass shelled rounds, and re-inserted the clip. The wooden stock was etched with initials, tally marks, and totems: snake, tiger, and dragon.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was one of nineteen children. As a boy he dreamed of being a poet.

Manao elders say every man reckons with three forces: Mala, the mother; Vasa, the killer; and Raga, enemy of kings, who fears no thing or god, makes waste of the finest plans, aids dice players, confuses drunks, chooses a child’s sex in the womb, and gives trajectories to cyclones which devour nations. Vasa and Mala come and go. Raga tips their arrows.

I dragged the dead man to a hollow in the ground, lay beside him, and pulled him over me. I fit his ammunition belt around my waist. His boots wouldn’t fit me. He smelled of piss and shit. I hoped the stink would protect me.

I heard helicopters, scattered gun shots, and the voices of the men who came down from the hill and walked through the wreckage of the shelling. I believe they executed some of the wounded.

When I took to my feet again it was dark. I scavenged trousers and boots from a dead man. I abandoned the boots miles later when they gave me terrible blisters. I followed the Kalamoamoa until it joined a larger channel and followed that one. At dawn I floated the river on my back with the rifle hugged to my chest. I portaged when I neared rapids.

There are no crocodilians indigenous to Manaodasa, although American alligators were imported in the 1970s for experimental farming. President Rawano Falarao, who served from 1950 to 1993, kept nine gators as pets and displayed the largest, a pair he called Vasa and Mala, each one weighing over three hundred pounds, to esteemed visitors, including the American writer Norman Mailer who was photographed in Bermuda shorts, cigar in mouth, while holding the animals by their muzzle chains, circa 1970.

* * *

I reached the hamlet of Montrouge, without firing a shot and found Van Pelt sitting at a picnic table beside a cup of tea.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said.

“My God. My God. It’s you.”

I sat before he could stand, and put my arm over his shoulder. The rifle lay across both of our laps. It was too much for us to bring up any tears. We were tired in the bones and the blood.

“Tell me the truth,” I said. “The worst. Tell it now.”

“Very bad show. I saw Lidstrom and Ivan killed by shells. And many of the others shot down by the guards as they ran. A chopper came and took me away with our liberators. MDF outfit. I spoke with a lieutenant. They came on a hit-and-run, having no idea of POWs. We were in the air perhaps fifteen minutes when a rocket took us from the sky. My foot became very hot. To my great surprise the spinning stopped and I was still alive. I walked through the forest until I came to a road. There’s a nice man in the shack. We have spoken of butterflies.”

“I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”

“Of course.”

The chicken man gave us fresh young coconuts for drinking. A small girl appeared, holding a black hen under her arm, petting the creature, and staring at us as if we were apparitions. Van Pelt began to hum a song and she went away. We ate rice, pork, and cabbage, offered on goodwill, and waited there an hour before U.S. troops appeared in a convoy of three vehicles and twenty men. They were 101st Airborne, Sergeant James F. LaForge in command. I gave my rifle to a PFC from Florida. The squad medics administered superficial treatments to our wounds. We were told we’d get home soon and we believed them, so great was their confidence and ordnance. The road we took west, after an hour’s drive north to Lavakito, was National Road 23, the Highway to Hell, the same route where Ivan Ivanovich was captured and I was taken twenty-three months before.

There was light shelling in the west.

Several times during the three-hour drive to the provincial capital I fell asleep and woke from bad dreams. I was running in a dark forest. Monsters gave chase. I never saw them but heard their howls and understood their horror completely.

The Manao Tiger, an example of insular dwarfism, was hunted to extinction by 1750. Folktales describe an over-size maneater called Redeye who took nine hundred children from their beds over a period of twenty years. The animal’s death was finally attributed to a shaman named Stone Mouth who fasted for nine weeks and slept for nine days before his soul entered the body of a shark in Kulamobao Bay. He swam ninety miles inland and ambushed the cat as it crossed the Falagamba River.

“Things will be hella different by spring,” the PFC said. “There’s a new offensive by the Falafalas. They’ve got full chopper support and five hundred indigenous who’ve been pushed through poor man’s infantry school.”

I estimated his age as twenty-one.

“Do you really believe that?” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then it must be a good thing to believe.”

The shelling made my heart race like in the war’s beginning. I remembered an offhand remark made by a weary French newspaperman, as we sat over palm wine and cigarettes: The condition of adaptation to danger may be hazardous in itself. I tried to still my mind by counting to a thousand in sets of three and managed to fall asleep again.

* * *

In Saint Joseph I went to a hotel where I knew I could find foreign journalists. On the strength of an Italian’s press pass I ate myself sick on sausage and mangos. A nurse was summoned. After a brief interrogation certain vitamins and minerals were prescribed.

On my ninth day in the city, after three nights of terrible drinking, I went to that brand of indigenous church called a People’s Temple. The walls were colorfully rendered with gods and prophets: Buddha, Shiva, Ganesh, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Manao trinity. There were three different preachers, each one operating from a different corner of the room, while the fourth corner was occupied with two empty coffins and a pile of sacrificial fruit, fragrant in its rot. The preachers in a People’s Temple act like buskers, conducting any manner of spiritual business at all hours of day and night, so long as it encourages compensation. To this end, money is desirable but liquor and rich foods are also encouraged. One of the priests was thin and the others were fat. They all wore sandals, loose white pants, red jackets, and went clean-shaven, letting the hair on their heads grow no longer than half an inch.

“How may I help?” the priest said. I laid a bill in his box. It was past midnight and I was drunk. He was the smallest, most pathetic looking of the trio. My face was mottled purple, green, and yellow from bruises.

“I’m going home,” I said.

“Tell me more.”

“It troubles me. Years ago my father did something. He hurt us.”

“Will you see him when you return?”

“No. He’s lost.”

“Do you know why he did this thing?”

“He was sick.”

“Can you forgive him?”

“I don’t know.”

“There’s a time to make yourself hard as steel and a time to be soft as a hummingbird’s tongue. My teacher, when I was a boy who dreamed of being a saint, taught us to walk two paths, the way of the warrior and the way of the poet. The way of strength and the way of beauty.”

“That’s a good try.”

“There are other techniques.”

“Do you sing?” I said.

“Of course. I have a song book from which you may choose.”

“Let’s sing together. You pick a good one. An oldie.”

I laid another bill in his box and he opened the book and showed me a dog-eared page. The lyrics were French and Manao. There were musical notations. I couldn’t read any of it.



“I start and you follow as you can,” he said. “You stop when you decide you can’t go on. Don’t be shy. There is no one to complain if you sing poorly. If a person came and made such an offence we would pray for the end of their ignorance. This song is very old among my people. It’s called ‘Tiger and Snake Do Battle On Blue Mountain.’ ”

So we sang.


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